You probably know deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as the genetic material for life. It determines your eye and hair color, how tall you will be, how resistant you are to specific diseases, and all of the other characteristics that make you different from everyone else in the world. Now researchers also are investigating ways that DNA can be used as a tool to perform work.
Before going any further, it’s important to know that it is relatively easy for trained scientists to create synthetic DNA molecules in a laboratory. Consequently, they do not need to extract DNA from humans, animals or plants to do any of the innovative things discussed below.
Ned Seeman, a chemistry professor at New York University, launched this field about 30 years ago. He was the first to create two- and three-dimensional structures of DNA by a process called self-assembly, which is similar to shaking a box of LEGOs to form a castle rather than building it one brick at a time. Expanding on this concept, research fellow Paul Rothemund at the California Institute of Technology developed a technique to fold strands of DNA in a process called DNA origami. Much like people manipulating sheets of paper to create airplanes, swans and boats, Rothemund programmed DNA to fold into the shapes he desired.
We are fortunate to have faculty, staff and students who have expertise in designing DNA for a host of applications right here in the Nanoscale Materials & Device Group at Boise State University. In fact, this team was able to create the first Boise State “B” logo made of DNA using Rothemund’s origami technique.
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Other exciting DNA activity in Idaho includes research from Patrick Hendricks and Peter Allen at the University of Idaho, who are working on DNA-like molecules that can insert themselves into DNA for medical diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.
And one of our distinguished research professors at Boise State, Bernard Yurke, is credited as the father of dynamic DNA nanotechnology. He created the first molecular machine from DNA that opened and closed like a pair of tweezers. This technology could lead to the creation of applications such as synthetic muscle.
Currently, Dr. Yurke is working alongside the DNA team on various basic and applied projects related to human health and semiconductor devices. For instance, Boise State scientists Will Hughes, Elton Graugnard, Jeunghoon Lee and Cheryl Jorcyk are working to develop a simple, low-cost blood test made from DNA that can quickly diagnose a variety of cancers, including lung cancer, lymphoma and colorectal cancer, at a very early stage. Their research is funded in part by the prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation.
Here’s how it works: A set of DNA strands functions as a kind of chemical amplifier. When a small amount of a disease-related chemical is present in serum or blood, it causes a rapid change in the composition of the DNA strands. This in turn causes the solution to change from red to blue, indicating a positive result — much like in a pregnancy test.
Another emerging area of research is creating memory devices from DNA that are smaller, faster, have more capacity, are more energy efficient and are more stable. Given that the computer memory market is exploding, nucleic acid memory (NAM), a termed coined by Hughes after being inspired by George Church at Harvard, could have far-reaching effects from Boise to Boston.
DNA also can be used as a semiconductor processing material. It’s ideal for this use because the molecules are, at their core, designed as a coding system. Boise State is discussing with Harvard University and local industry ways to pattern next-generation memory chips using DNA. The National Science Foundation has dubbed this kind of research the “factory of the future,” a future that reads, writes and patterns DNA, right here in the Treasure Valley.
These examples just touch on the many exciting advances in this field. Our researchers are constantly redefining what’s possible as they work to create better products and a brighter future. But that’s to be expected — after all, it’s in our DNA.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond. Reach Rudin at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about DNA nanotechnology, check out nano.boisestate.edu.