Congratulations to
DNA origami

Hand with a magnifier focusing on an origami bird

Picture: iStock.com / delihayat

DNA can do a whole lot more than just store genetic information. A physicist at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) specializes in folding and bending DNA molecules, assemling them into a completely new structrues. Its stability makes DNA an excellent building block for tiny tools – even for medical use.

DNA: perfect building block for nanomachines

Millions of tiny figures hop around under an electron microscope, each of them only a few nanometers in size: robots waving their arms, books opening and closing, and interlocking gears. What physicist Hendrik Dietz and his team saw through the microscope in 2015 marked a decisive step forward. For the first time, they had produced nanoscale structures in their own laboratory that were capable of movement – from snippets of DNA code.

Dietz is hoping he will soon be able to build entire machines and motors out of DNA in the laboratory, which could then be used, for instance, as precise drug delivery vehicles in the human body. So he continues bending and folding DNA strands, compressing and stretching them before putting them back together in new ways. Since being developed in California in 2006, this principle has been known as “DNA origami”. And it was already around the turn of the century that scientists realized: These molecules that usually store our genetic information are ideally suited to such as purpose. DNA is stable and forms regular chains that are easy to recombine.

Dietz first constructed three-dimensional objects out of DNA as a postdoc back in 2009, together with colleagues at Harvard. Shortly afterwards, TUM appointed him Professor of Experimental Biophysics. Since then, his laboratory has steadily continued developing this origami technology. The team has produced artificial membrane channels made of DNA and proteins, for instance, as well as a nano-gripper. They have also succeeded in reducing the self-assembly time of DNA segments from a week to just a few hours. In 2015, Dietz was awarded the Leibniz Prize for his achievements, the highest honor in Germany for scientists.

“We now have a framework for programming even the tiniest DNA building blocks. You can slot them together however you want – almost like Lego bricks.”

Portrait Hendrik Dietz

Hendrik Dietz, 2017, Professor of Experimental Biophysics at TUM and Carl von Linde Senior Fellow at the TUM Institute for Advanced Study

Picture: Astrid Eckert/TUM

Video: How does Hendrik Dietz's laboratory work? (German, 1'05 Min.)

In the video, Hendrik Dietz explains what he and his team are researching in the laboratory for biomolecular nanotechnology. Their approach: “What you can’t build, you can’t understand.” The video is in German language. (Video: Douglas-Film 2014)

Curious? More discoveries and inventions spanning 150 years of TUM