Beyond its standard role as the carrier of genetic information in living organisms, DNA has also emerged has highly versatile construction material for fabricating nanometer-sized particles and machines. By carefully designing the sequences of DNA strand collections, complementary base pairing can be used to fully control the size, shape and mechanical properties of single, DNA-based nanoparticles or larger DNA-based materials.
An example includes materials formed from DNA nanotubes. A small collection of DNA strands is designed to self-assemble into micrometer-length filaments. Their nanometer-sized diameters can be precisely controlled in order to "program" their nanoscale mechanical properties. These can act as synthetic mimics of biologically derived structures such as actin or collagen filaments. However, the programmable nature of DNA strands provides the ability to selectively control parameters such as the stiffness of the individual nanotubes, which is not possible with biologically derived materials such as actin or collagen.
By forming the DNA nanotubes in a crowded molecular environment, similar to what is found inside cells, they can be made to spontaneously assemble large microstructures that are dependent upon their stiffness and volume fraction (Figure 1). These star-like or bundled structures resemble cellular structures such as stress fibers, filopodia or the mitotic spindle, and are tools to provide insight into the basic mechanism behind their formation in biological systems.
Additionally, DNA nanotubes at lower volume fractions form entangled, elastic hydrogels. Here, the elastic plateau shear modulus (G') can be adjusted over a wide range by changing either the network density or the stiffness of the individual DNA nanotubes. This enables a fine-tuning of the hydrogel stiffness while being able to independently maintain factors such as porosity. This ability to control macroscale properties through programmable nanoscale building blocks can be applied more broadly to develop functional materials for cell-based applications such as 3D cell culture or nutrient repositories in long-term bioreactors.