Paul Rothemund is a computer scientist and an artist, although not necessarily in that order. Using a few DNA molecules, an atomic force microscope and a computer, he can fit the likenesses of 50 billion smiley faces into a space no bigger than a drop of water.
Rothemund refers to his brew of art, biology and technology as "DNA origami," because it is created by using hundreds of short DNA strands (which Rothemund refers to as "staples") to fold much longer genetic ribbons into nanoscale shapes and patterns.
The resulting microscopic creations are currently on display through May 12 at MoMA–The Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of the "Design and the Elastic Mind" exhibit. The show includes images of snowflakes and maps—not to mention 1970s-inspired smiley faces, which are only about 100 nanometers across (one one-thousandth the width of a human hair), two nanometers thick and comprise about 14,000 DNA bases.
Call it the art of science or, if you prefer, the science of art. "There is an art and an aesthetics in picking what question to ask, what tools to use to answer those questions, and especially in how one later visualizes and explains the answers," says the artist–scientist, a computer science senior research associate* at The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "You design the stuff in a computer, you order the DNA strands, you mix them up [in saltwater]." The strands must then be heated to almost boiling and then cooled, which takes a couple hours. "It is just that simple," Rothemund adds.*
But perhaps most important, Rothemund says, is that DNA origami proves that microscopic material can be controlled so that it forms specific objects. "The reason the work is exciting for [potentially] making smaller circuits," he says, "is that this resolution is roughly eight to 10 times smaller than the features in current computer chips' [at] 45 to 60 nanometers." The process of creating DNA origami allows many shapes or patterns to be crafted simultaneously (50 billion in a single drop of water), paving the way to make loads of circuits more quickly and cheaper than is now possible.
Rothemund envisions many other possible applications as well. "It's going to be a kind of nanoscale test bed," he says, "so you can arrange things how you want, to see how they work."
Rothemund is currently working with IBM to apply the technique to circuits, but he concedes that an application for a consumer use is years away. "Fifty years from now," he says, "or maybe sooner, we want to be able to program molecules the same way we program computers."
* Note: Paul Rothemund was originally identified as senior research fellow. His most recent title and the additional steps involved in preparing the DNA strands were added after the article's original posting on April 11, 2008.