Morphing DNA hydrogel flows like liquid but remembers its original shape

December 05, 2012

ITHACA, N.Y. - A bit reminiscent of the Terminator T-1000, a new material created by Cornell researchers is so soft that it can flow like a liquid and then, strangely, return to its original shape.

Rather than liquid metal, it is a hydrogel, a mesh of organic molecules with many small empty spaces that can absorb water like a sponge. It qualifies as a "metamaterial" with properties not found in nature and may be the first organic metamaterial with mechanical meta-properties.

Hydrogels have already been considered for use in drug delivery - the spaces can be filled with drugs that release slowly as the gel biodegrades - and as frameworks for tissue rebuilding. The ability to form a gel into a desired shape further expands the possibilities. For example, a drug-infused gel could be formed to exactly fit the space inside a wound.

Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering, and colleagues describe their creation in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The new hydrogel is made of synthetic DNA. In addition to being the stuff genes are made of, DNA can serve as a building block for self-assembling materials. Single strands of DNA will lock onto other single stands that have complementary coding, like tiny organic Legos. By synthesizing DNA with carefully arranged complementary sections Luo's research team previously created short stands that link into shapes such as crosses or Y's, which in turn join at the ends to form meshlike structures to form the first successful all-DNA hydrogel. Trying a new approach, they mixed synthetic DNA with enzymes that cause DNA to self-replicate and to extend itself into long chains, to make a hydrogel without DNA linkages.

"During this process they entangle, and the entanglement produces a 3-D network," Luo said. But the result was not what they expected: The hydrogel they made flows like a liquid, but when placed in water returns to the shape of the container in which it was formed.

"This was not by design," Luo said.

Examination under an electron microscope shows that the material is made up of a mass of tiny spherical "bird's nests" of tangled DNA, about 1 micron (millionth of a meter) in diameter, further entangled to one another by longer DNA chains. It behaves something like a mass of rubber bands glued together: It has an inherent shape, but can be stretched and deformed.

Exactly how this works is "still being investigated," the researchers said, but they theorize that the elastic forces holding the shape are so weak that a combination of surface tension and gravity overcomes them; the gel just sags into a loose blob. But when it is immersed in water, surface tension is nearly zero - there's water inside and out - and buoyancy cancels gravity.

To demonstrate the effect, the researchers created hydrogels in molds shaped like the letters D, N and A. Poured out of the molds, the gels became amorphous liquids, but in water they morphed back into the letters. As a possible application, the team created a water-actuated switch. They made a short cylindrical gel infused with metal particles placed in an insulated tube between two electrical contacts. In liquid form the gel reaches both ends of the tube and forms a circuit. When water is added, the gel reverts to its shorter form that will not reach both ends. (The experiment is done with distilled water that does not conduct electricity.)

The DNA used in this work has a random sequence, and only occasional cross-linking was observed, Luo said. By designing the DNA to link in particular ways he hopes to be able to tune the properties of the new hydrogel.
The research has been partially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense.

Cornell University

Related DNA Articles from Brightsurf:

A new twist on DNA origami
A team* of scientists from ASU and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) led by Hao Yan, ASU's Milton Glick Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, and director of the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, has just announced the creation of a new type of meta-DNA structures that will open up the fields of optoelectronics (including information storage and encryption) as well as synthetic biology.

Solving a DNA mystery
''A watched pot never boils,'' as the saying goes, but that was not the case for UC Santa Barbara researchers watching a ''pot'' of liquids formed from DNA.

Junk DNA might be really, really useful for biocomputing
When you don't understand how things work, it's not unusual to think of them as just plain old junk.

Designing DNA from scratch: Engineering the functions of micrometer-sized DNA droplets
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) have constructed ''DNA droplets'' comprising designed DNA nanostructures.

Does DNA in the water tell us how many fish are there?
Researchers have developed a new non-invasive method to count individual fish by measuring the concentration of environmental DNA in the water, which could be applied for quantitative monitoring of aquatic ecosystems.

Zigzag DNA
How the cell organizes DNA into tightly packed chromosomes. Nature publication by Delft University of Technology and EMBL Heidelberg.

Scientists now know what DNA's chaperone looks like
Researchers have discovered the structure of the FACT protein -- a mysterious protein central to the functioning of DNA.

DNA is like everything else: it's not what you have, but how you use it
A new paradigm for reading out genetic information in DNA is described by Dr.

A new spin on DNA
For decades, researchers have chased ways to study biological machines.

From face to DNA: New method aims to improve match between DNA sample and face database
Predicting what someone's face looks like based on a DNA sample remains a hard nut to crack for science.

Read More: DNA News and DNA Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to