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Self Assembly: Nature’s Design Principle

At the Wyss Institute, the natural principle of ‘self assembly’ inspires technology innovation as well as how we collaborate

One of the most wondrous aspects of life is that all living organisms are formed through self assembly, a fundamental biological design process by which an organized structure seemingly builds itself from a disordered collection of smaller parts.

On a large scale, self-organizing behavior’s powerful effects are seen when small gusts of wind join together to form a tornado that can wreak havoc on infrastructure and natural resources in its path.

And on a much smaller scale, this same principle is seen when two strands of DNA zip up to form the double helix that encodes our genome. Or, when cells self assemble into embryonic tissues that further develop into fully formed humans and animals.

The self assembly of some structures can be accelerated by shaking up pieces and increasing their chances of finding matching connections, like a lock and key, until a stable structure emerges from the sum of parts. Long DNA molecules, for example, can now be designed so that upon being shaken in a test tube, they self-organize into 3D structures with predetermined shapes and functions – a process known as ‘DNA Origami’.

But the most sophisticated biological structures use a dynamic type of self assembly that continually consumes energy in a never-ending cycle of assembly and disassembly, continually responding and adapting to their environment and available components. This is how thousands of molecules come together to form the filaments, membranes and organelles that comprise cells and carry out the intricate series of biochemical reactions that make life possible.

Across the Institute, scientists of different expertise co-mingle in shared ‘collaboratories’ where the trade of ideas can spark new research initiatives that ravel together organically. As a result, the Institute’s core focus areas, which currently span Synthetic Biology, Living Cellular Devices, Programmable Nanomaterials, Biomimetic Microsystems, Adaptive Material Technologies, and Bioinspired Robotics, Molecular Robotics and 3D Organ Engineering are continuously evolving as Wyss scientists band and disband in harmony with promising new technologies that emerge.

Self assembly is more than just a process to be studied or the way in which people team up to work together. It is a design principle that Wyss Institute faculty and staff leverage in their research to create new materials and devices with unique behaviors and properties.

Wyss Institute scientists have developed injectable nanoparticles that aggregate at sites of disease or injury inside the body, where they can recruit immune system factors or circulating drugs to treat illness or attract stem cells to regenerate tissues. DNA Origami is being used to create new nanoscale drug delivery systems and immune adjuvants.  Implantable biomaterials are being fabricated that induce living cells to self organize to form functional tissues and organs. And other Wyss researchers are designing collective swarms of robots small enough to traverse tiny spaces within collapsed buildings, where they could then self assemble into larger collectives with enough force to open passageways for inspection or escape.

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