The year 2003 witnessed the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure by James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick. Their discovery reduced genetics to chemistry and laid the foundations for the next half a century of biology. Today thousands of researchers are hard at work deciphering the myriad ways that genes control the development and functioning of organisms. All those genes are written in the medium that is DNA.
Yet this extraordinary molecule has other uses in addition to those of biochemistry. By employing the techniques of modern biotechnology, we can make long DNA molecules with a sequence of building blocks chosen at will. That ability opens the door to new paths not taken by nature when life evolved. In 1994, for example, Leonard M. Adleman of the University of Southern California demonstrated how DNA can be used as a computational device [see "Computing with DNA," by Leonard M. Adleman; Scientific American, August 1998]. In this article I will discuss another nonbiological use of DNA: the building of structures and devices whose essential elements and mechanisms range from around one to 100 nanometers in size--in a word, nanotechnology.
This article was originally published with the title Nanotechnology and the Double Helix.