Artificial muscles and self-propelled goo may be the stuff of Hollywood fiction, but for UC Santa Barbara scientists Omar Saleh and Deborah Fygenson, the reality of it is not that far away. By blending their areas of expertise, the pair have created a dynamic gel made of DNA that mechanically responds to stimuli in much the same way that cells do.
“This is a whole new kind of responsive gel, or what some might call a ‘smart’ material,” said Saleh, associate professor of materials, affiliated with UCSB’s Biomolecular Science and Engineering program. “The gel has active mechanical capabilities in that it generates forces independently, leading to changes in elasticity or shape, when fed ATP molecules for energy — much like a living cell.”
Their DNA gel, at only 10 microns in width, is roughly the size of a eukaryotic cell, the type of cell of which humans are made. The miniscule gel contains within it stiff DNA nanotubes linked together by longer, flexible DNA strands that serve as the substrate for molecular motors.
“DNA gives you a lot more design control,” said Fygenson, associate professor of physics and also affiliated with UCSB’s BMSE program. “This system is exciting because we can build nano-scale filaments to specifications.” Using DNA design, she said, they can control the stiffness of the nanotubes and the manner and extent of their cross-linking, which will determine how the gel responds to stimuli. Via Scientists Build ‘Mechanically Active’ DNA Material That Responds With Movement When Stimulated