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Interactive Feature: Molecular Origami

Everyone knows the purpose of DNA, and that is to carry the genetic information for all life on earth -- the function it has been performing for billions of years. But over the past three decades researchers have explored the use of DNA for a whole new purpose: as a building material(1). More recently, a breakthrough has enabled researchers to "construct" intricate shapes of DNA -- shapes that include microscopic versions of stars, triangles, and even smiley faces(2). This new process was dubbed DNA origami because a long strand of DNA is programmed to fold in on itself to create each of these forms, much like a single sheet of paper is folded to create a variety of designs in the traditional Japanese art.
Scientists at the Wyss Institute, led by Core Faculty members, William Shih and Peng Yin, have extended this work toward building complex, three-dimensional structures out of DNA. This work could lead to breakthroughs in manufacturing and medicine. For example, these incredibly tiny forms could be used as cogs in a machine for molecular manufacturing, optical reporters for bioimaging, or carriers for delivery of cancer drugs deep inside the body.
With DNA origami, researchers take a long, single strand of DNA (called a scaffold) and fold it into a structure of their own design. These designs are held together with short "staple" strands, which are also made of DNA. Each staple is coded with two specific sequences: one is the complement to a specific site on the scaffold; the other is the complement to a second location on the same scaffold. When the scaffold and staples are allowed to "self-assemble," the attachment of the staple strands causes the scaffold to bend and fold into the desired structure. In principle, the same approach could be used with RNA or any other informational molecule where complementary sequences can be engineered.
Here's an interactive feature that illustrates the basic idea of DNA origami by letting you manipulate a biomolecule, such as DNA or RNA. The general idea is the same as DNA origami, but instead of adding staple strands to the scaffold, you define the binding sequences on scaffold, keeping in mind how you'd like the strand to fold. When you're satisfied with your coding, click on the "Self-Assemble" button and watch the strand fold up on itself, connecting at points you've selected. The molecule should take shape as planned -- or not! Either way, you might discover something interesting as you build.


Launch Molecular Origami Launch "Molecular Origami"

Build virtual nano structures of your own design by "coding" a strand of DNA. [Requires Flash plugin.]





 More about DNA Origami at the Wyss Institute...




Here are a few examples of structures created with Molecular Origami. If you create an interesting shape, screen grab it and send it to We may post it in this gallery.



Richard W., Cape Town, South Africa


Minseok K., Groningen, The Netherlands



Christopher P., Great Falls, MT



Fatima S., Stanford, CA




Patricia A., Ann Arbor, MI




Ben G., Framingham, MA



1 Seeman NC, DNA in a material world, Nature 421, 427–431, 2003.
2 Rothemund PW, Folding DNA to create nanoscale shapes and patterns, Nature 440, 297–302, 2006.


Subject matter experts: William Shih, Ph.D., Shawn Douglas, Ph.D., Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D.
Producer/writer: Rick Groleau
Graphic design and technical development: iFactory, Woven Interactive






We've won a Webby Award!

Wyss Institute is proud to announce our win in the 2012
Webby Awards in the Science category.