Caltech, NYU scientists team up with sculptor to develop ‘biomemetic self-replicating materials’ (video)

Julian Voss-Andreae’s Light-Harvesting Complex (top view), 2003: Wood, particle board and casting resin, 22” x 25” x 25” (56 x 64 x 64 cm) Photo courtesy the artist.

Researchers at Caltech and NYU recently received a $2 million grant to develop biomemetic self-replicating materials. According to Caltech's Si-Ping Han, if 'self-replicating' sounds sci-fi, it is. 

Along with Caltech professor William A. Goddard, III, Han will research how to make structures that can make copies of themselves. The applications are many, but Han says one example where a self-replicating material might come in handy is with building smaller electronic devices. With current construction methods, scientists can make transistors on the nanoscale. But how do you make a transistor that's smaller than seven nanometers? According to Goddard and Han, you synthesize a material that can assemble itself into the desired structure. 

And how do you get a material to assemble itself into a more complex structure? You use DNA of course. The hope is that, guided by DNA base pairing, these materials will fold themselves into the desired shapes in the same way an origami artist takes a two dimensional piece of paper and folds it into something three dimensional. 

Caltech and NYU scientists will use origami mathematics in coming up with algorithms that will in  turn direct the folds of the self-assembling DNA structures. 

Portland, Oregon-based sculptor Julian Voss-Andreae will also contribute his expertise as an artist, helping the researchers conceptualize the structures with life-size physical models. "A sculptor might be able to envision structures we might not," Han says. 

The four-year grant comes as part of the NSF's Origami Design for Integration of Self-assembling Systems for Engineering Innovation (ODISSEI) program (yeah, that exists). 


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