Researchers Design DNA With Completely New Shapes and Structures

And they're going to 3D print it.

Dec 5 2014, 12:30pm

​Image: MIT

​ The shape of DNA is a double helix, right? That's what we are taught. Well, now the answer is "not always." Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered how to program DNA so that it's shaped like a bowl, or a spiral, or a ring, or a tile, or all sorts of different things.

It's the latest in a string of discoveries about the underlying structure of life and the building blocks that make it up. We've learned that life might not even need DNA to exist, and a potential means to create life of that DNA-less nature was recently demonstrated when scientists created enzymes in a lab without the stuff. Then, you've got scientists who have been able to create new nucleotides (the "letters" in DNA) that do not exist in nature and insert them into a living organism. And now, this: DNA can look like just about anything.

Check out these structures:

Image: Nature

In a study published in Nature Communications, MIT's Mark Bathe explains how a new computer algorithm can be used to predict the structure that DNA will take given certain inputs, such as different molecular weight and different microstructures within DNA.

"The procedure is used to predict the 3D structure of high molecular weight planar and spherical ring-like origami objects, a tile-based sheet-like ribbon, and a 3D crystalline… motif, in quantitative agreement with experiments," Bathe writes in the paper.

At the moment, most of the work takes place on a computer program, but DNA is expected to behave in this way in the real world if you can give it the right inputs.

To actually create this DNA, Bathe is first going to open source his algorithm, so anyone can use it. He's also trying to make it possible to 3D print these structures using real DNA bases.

That's probably the endgame here: 3D-printed DNA with super weird structures.

Why bother with this at all? Well, in the near term, it's probably not going to be used to make weird artificial life forms (although, in the future, who knows?). Instead, they can be used to create targeted drug-delivery systems. They can also be used to create what are known as "DNA scaffolds," which are microstructures that can be used to hang proteins on and that sort of thing, which would make it easier to design molecules that mimic the ones plants use for photosynthesis and other natural phenomena that have thus far been impossible to recreate in the lab.

It's still the early days, but the more we learn about the fundamental building blocks of life, the more open-ended the whole thing seems.