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10, Apr 2024

The art of designing tiny structures

Illustrating the design difficulties of DNA origami

It’s always an honour for a scientist to achieve a cover story in an academic journal. It’s even better when the author has designed the artwork itself.

Dr Jonathan Berengut, of the UNSW node, has a new paper and original cover artwork in Small Structures.

The artwork shows DNA being given a trim and alludes to combing out the ‘tangles’ that arise when working with DNA origami.

DNA origami is a technique where scientists use synthetic DNA molecules to create very tiny structures at the nanoscale. These tiny structures can be used for many different things, such as in medicine, electronics or materials science.

But one problem is that sometimes the DNA origami structures stick together in a way that’s not helpful. This sticking together is called aggregation, and it can make design difficult.

In this study, Dr Berengut and co-authors look at two existing ways that researchers stop DNA origami from sticking together: using messy DNA strands called “scaffold loops” and “poly-nucleotide brushes”.

They test different lengths and sequences of these strands, as well as the concentration of a chemical called magnesium chloride (MgCl2), to see what works best.

They found that the poly-nucleotide brushes are good at preventing clumping in many different conditions, while the scaffold loops help for specific applications, like combining multiple DNA origamis into more complex structures.

They also developed a new method using neatly arranged DNA ‘end-caps’ that act as a shield, stopping the structures from aggregating, while still allowing the intentional assembly of larger structures.

‘This study gives scientists more tools to design better DNA nanostructures,’ says Dr Berengut. ‘And better control of matter at this scale means we’re a step closer to the kinds of nanoelectronic devices, personalised medicines, and responsive materials that science fiction promised us when we were kids.’

‘I illustrated this barbershop scene as a visual metaphor to contrast the messy, disordered single-stranded DNA generally used for this type of structure with the neatly organised end-caps that we propose in the study. Since I started my scientific career, I’ve always wanted to have a cover artwork published, and this was my first one (although it wasn’t my first attempt!).’