Structural DNA nanotechnology, sometimes abbreviated as SDN, focuses on synthesizing and characterizing nucleic acid complexes and materials where the assembly has a static, equilibrium endpoint. The nucleic acid double helix has a robust, defined three-dimensional geometry that makes it possible to predict and design the structures of more complicated nucleic acid complexes. Many such structures have been created, including two- and three-dimensional structures, and periodic, aperiodic, and discrete structures.
The assembly of a DX array. Left, schematic diagram. Each bar represents a double-helical domain of DNA, with the shapes representing complementarysticky ends. The DX complex at top will combine with other DX complexes into the two-dimensional array shown at bottom.Right, an atomic force microscopy image of the assembled array. The individual DX tiles are clearly visible within the assembled structure. The field is 150 nm across.
Left, a model of a DNA tile used to make another two-dimensional periodic lattice. Right, an atomic force micrograph of the assembled lattice.
An example of an aperiodic two-dimensional lattice that assembles into a fractal pattern. Left, the Sierpinski gasket fractal. Right, DNA arrays that display a representation of the Sierpinski gasket on their surfaces
Small nucleic acid complexes can be equipped with sticky ends and combined into larger two-dimensional periodic lattices containing a specific tessellated pattern of the individual molecular tiles. The earliest example of this used double-crossover (DX) complexes as the basic tiles, each containing four sticky ends designed with sequences that caused the DX units to combine into periodic two-dimensional flat sheets that are essentially rigid two-dimensional crystals of DNA. Two-dimensional arrays have been made from other motifs as well, including the Holliday junctionrhombus lattice, and various DX-based arrays making use of a double-cohesion scheme. The top two images at right show examples of tile-based periodic lattices.
Two-dimensional arrays can be made to exhibit aperiodic structures whose assembly implements a specific algorithm, exhibiting one form of DNA computing. The DX tiles can have their sticky end sequences chosen so that they act as Wang tiles, allowing them to perform computation. A DX array whose assembly encodes an XOR operation has been demonstrated; this allows the DNA array to implement a cellular automaton that generates a fractal known as the Sierpinski gasket. The third image at right shows this type of array. Another system has the function of a binary counter, displaying a representation of increasing binary numbers as it grows. These results show that computation can be incorporated into the assembly of DNA arrays.
DX arrays have been made to form hollow nanotubes 4–20 nm in diameter, essentially two-dimensional lattices which curve back upon themselves. These DNA nanotubes are somewhat similar in size and shape to carbon nanotubes, and while they lack the electrical conductance of carbon nanotubes, DNA nanotubes are more easily modified and connected to other structures. One of many schemes for constructing DNA nanotubes uses a lattice of curved DX tiles that curls around itself and closes into a tube. In an alternative method that allows the circumference to be specified in a simple, modular fashion using single-stranded tiles, the rigidity of the tube is an emergent property.
Forming three-dimensional lattices of DNA was the earliest goal of DNA nanotechnology, but this proved to be one of the most difficult to realize. Success using a motif based on the concept of tensegrity, a balance between tension and compression forces, was finally reported in 2009.
Researchers have synthesized many three-dimensional DNA complexes that each have the connectivity of a polyhedron, such as a cube or octahedron, meaning that the DNA duplexes trace the edges of a polyhedron with a DNA junction at each vertex. The earliest demonstrations of DNA polyhedra were very work-intensive, requiring multiple ligations and solid-phase synthesis steps to create catenated polyhedra. Subsequent work yielded polyhedra whose synthesis was much easier. These include a DNA octahedron made from a long single strand designed to fold into the correct conformation, and a tetrahedron that can be produced from four DNA strands in one step, pictured at the top of this article.
Nanostructures of arbitrary, non-regular shapes are usually made using the DNA origami method. These structures consist of a long, natural virus strand as a "scaffold", which is made to fold into the desired shape by computationally designed short "staple" strands. This method has the advantages of being easy to design, as the base sequence is predetermined by the scaffold strand sequence, and not requiring high strand purity and accurate stoichiometry, as most other DNA nanotechnology methods do. DNA origami was first demonstrated for two-dimensional shapes, such as a smiley face, a coarse map of the Western Hemisphere, and the Mona Lisa painting. Solid three-dimensional structures can be made by using parallel DNA helices arranged in a honeycomb pattern, and structures with two-dimensional faces can be made to fold into a hollow overall three-dimensional shape, akin to a cardboard box. These can be programmed to open and reveal or release a molecular cargo in response to a stimulus, making them potentially useful as programmable molecular cages.
Nucleic acid structures can be made to incorporate molecules other than nucleic acids, sometimes called heteroelements, including proteins, metallic nanoparticles, quantum dots, and fullerenes. This allows the construction of materials and devices with a range of functionalities much greater than is possible with nucleic acids alone. The goal is to use the self-assembly of the nucleic acid structures to template the assembly of the nanoparticles hosted on them, controlling their position and in some cases orientation.
Many of these schemes use a covalent attachment scheme, using oligonucleotides with amide or thiol functional groups as a chemical handle to bind the heteroelements. This covalent binding scheme has been used to arrange gold nanoparticles on a DX-based array,
and to arrange streptavidin protein molecules into specific patterns on a DX array.
A non-covalent hosting scheme using Dervan polyamides on a DX array was used to arrange streptavidin proteins in a specific pattern on a DX array. Carbon nanotubes have been hosted on DNA arrays in a pattern allowing the assembly to act as a molecular electronic device, a carbon nanotube field-effect transistor. In addition, there are nucleic acid metallization methods, in which the nucleic acid is replaced by a metal which assumes the general shape of the original nucleic acid structure, and schemes for using nucleic acid nanostructures as lithography masks, transferring their pattern into a solid surface.