Programmable materials and the nature of the DNA bond

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Science  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6224, 1260901
DOI: 10.1126/science.1260901

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Valency and bonding on a larger scale

In molecular systems, valency describes the number of bonds an atom can make with its neighbors. Larger objects such as colloids can be linked together to make connected structures in which the number of connections, or valency, is controlled by the central object. Jones et al. review the two main approaches to creating stiff bonds, based on DNA-based materials synthesis. These approaches allow the construction of molecular-like objects from building blocks much larger than single atoms.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.1260901

Structured Abstract


Nucleic acids are ubiquitous in biology because of their ability to encode vast amounts of information via canonical Watson-Crick base-pairing interactions. With the advent of chemical methods to make synthetic oligonucleotides of an arbitrary sequence, researchers can program entire libraries of molecules with orthogonal interactions, directed to assemble in highly specific arrangements. Early attempts to use DNA to make nanostructures led to topologically defined architectures, but ones that were too conformationally flexible to be used to guide the construction of well-defined nanoscale materials from the bottom up. In this Review, we discuss the key discoveries that have overcome this limitation and distill common design principles that have since led to a revolution in materials sophistication based on DNA-directed assembly.


The experimental realization of DNA-based constructs that are sufficiently rigid so as to impart directionality to hybridization interactions marks a major milestone in the development of programmable materials assembly. This feat was accomplished simultaneously by the Mirkin Group and Seeman Group in 1996, but through chemically and conceptually distinct pathways. In one approach, rigidity is derived from multiple strand crossover events and the hybridization that stabilizes them to create a conformationally restricted DNA tile. In the other approach, a rigid non-nucleic acid–based nanoparticle (inorganic or organic) core acts as a template to organize functionalized DNA strands in a surface-normal orientation. It is appealing to draw the analogy between DNA-based constructs of this sort with the concepts of “bonds” and “valency” found in atomic systems. Just as understanding the nature of atomic bonding is crucial for chemists to manipulate the formation of molecular and supramolecular species, so too is an understanding of the nature of these DNA bonding modes necessary for nanoscientists to build complex and functional architectures to address materials needs.


The interest in nanoscale materials constructed by using DNA bonds has continued to grow steadily, but has seen a noteworthy explosion in relevance over the past several years. This is due in large part to the development of methods to move beyond simple clusters and crystals to more sophisticated nanostructured materials that are dynamic and stimuli responsive, are macroscopic in spatial extent, and exhibit emergent physical properties that arise from specific arrangements of matter. These techniques offer perhaps the most versatile way of organizing optically active materials into architectures that exhibit unusual and deliberately tailorable plasmonic and photonic properties. In addition, prospects include the use of these materials in biological settings, being that they are constructed, in large measure, from nucleic acid precursors. The ability to manipulate gene expression, deliver molecular payloads via DNA-based binding events, and detect relevant markers of disease with nanoscale spatial resolution represent some of the most fruitful avenues of future research.

Differentiating nanoscale DNA bonds.

(A) Multiple strand crossover events and DNA hybridization produce a conformationally constrained molecule with a rigid core. (B) A rigid nanoparticle acts as a scaffold for the immobilization and organization of DNA strands in a surface-normal direction.


For over half a century, the biological roles of nucleic acids as catalytic enzymes, intracellular regulatory molecules, and the carriers of genetic information have been studied extensively. More recently, the sequence-specific binding properties of DNA have been exploited to direct the assembly of materials at the nanoscale. Integral to any methodology focused on assembling matter from smaller pieces is the idea that final structures have well-defined spacings, orientations, and stereo-relationships. This requirement can be met by using DNA-based constructs that present oriented nanoscale bonding elements from rigid core units. Here, we draw analogy between such building blocks and the familiar chemical concepts of “bonds” and “valency” and review two distinct but related strategies that have used this design principle in constructing new configurations of matter.

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