Prof. Osamu Tabata, External Senior Fellow at the School of Soft Matter Research at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) is a pioneer of MEMS.
The future of the art of engineering
Biological elements such as cells, receptor proteins, enzymes and DNA have amazing properties: they can recognize individual molecules, conduct light energy and catalyze chemical reactions, to name just a few properties. “Can they be used as components of next-generation microelectronics systems such as computer processors, sensor systems, MEMS and other micromachines?” asks Tabata, who is a professor in the Department of Microengineering Sciences at Kyoto University in Japan. “And how can biological elements be combined with microelectronic systems?” Tabata is certain that bionanotechnology will have a huge impact on engineering in the future. Currently focused on the basic aspects, it is such visions that have driven his research from the very beginning back in the day when the term “microelectromechanical systems” had not yet been coined.
The DNA origami method enables the researchers to fold DNA molecules into complicated scaffolds. (© Prof. Dr. Osamu Tabata)
Bringing together MEMS, DNa Origami, self assembly and synthetic biology
A couple of years ago, Tabata once again started a new research line combining top-down and bottom-up MEMS approaches: the top-down MEMS approach relates to the principle of miniaturizing macroscopic systems using microsystems technology and the bottom-up synthetic biology approach is based on the self-assembly of atoms and molecules.
His FRIAS research project is entitled “Configurable self-assembly of functional DNA blocks”. DNA is extremely suitable for use as a building block in MEMS applications as it is both a scaffold protein and a functional element.
“We can use nanobiotechnological methods to assemble DNA molecules into functional building blocks a few nanometers in size. Due to the specific properties of the nanomaterials, these functional blocks are able to generate numerous chemical and physical reactions,” Tabata explained. Tabata and his team have spent many years developing the DNA origami method which enables the researchers to fold long DNA strands into two-dimensional loops and eventually into complex three-dimensional scaffolds using many short DNA fragments. This complicated laboratory method has a decisive advantage over other methods used to produce functional nano- and microscopic particles: in contrast to an electron beam lithography system, DNA origami does not cost ten million dollars and does not fill an entire room. The DNA origami method is a relatively cheap way of producing a microscopic plate from a DNA molecule, which, when combined with metal nanomaterials, can be used to capture, transmit and emit light, to name but one example,” said Tabata who is working with a group of researchers led by Jan G. Korvink, Director and Internal Senior Fellow at the School of Soft Matter Research in Freiburg.
The functional diversity of a single plate is relatively limited; but the combination of several such building blocks results in complex and useful properties, including the recognition and quantification of specific molecule combinations or the transfer and processing of light energy. The latter has the potential to be used for the extremely quick transmission and processing of information in nano computer chips and replace currently used technology based on the flow of electrons, which is much slower. “This is why we are now looking for ways to combine different DNA building blocks into functional units,” said Tabata who is once again very excited about working in uncharted scientific territory.
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