As they explore the theory and methods behind synthetic biology, first-year LSA biophysics students are learning firsthand how to design and construct very tiny structures using DNA as a building material. Their work, part of a class called DNA Origami, is on display through January 12 in U-M’s Hatcher Graduate Library gallery space. Associate Professor Sarah Veatch, who teaches the class, says the exhibition offers a peek at both the future of biotechnology and cutting-edge research methods in biophysics.

DNA, which is made of two strands, binds together in predictable ways. Taking advantage of DNA’s natural binding process, scientists can create new structures by attaching strands of DNA to each other according to a predetermined design. The new DNA structure folds into place, inspiring the origami analogy.

DNA origami has a number of potential applications. While students in LSA’s DNA Origami course learn to mold DNA into simple shapes, similar ideas “are being applied by other researchers to build more complicated and responsive structures, such as smart containers to deliver drugs,” Veatch notes.

“The exciting thing about this class is that students can follow a basic concept all the way through the design of a DNA nano-object and its experimental observation,” Veatch continues. “Students also get exposed to the bumps in the road that always accompany real scientific research.” In addition to learning concepts specific to DNA origami, students learn theoretical and experimental methods that can be used in a broad range of biophysics research.

In addition to the exhibit, Veatch’s class will culminate in discussions about the future of DNA origami, as well as the impact that this technique and related biological materials may have on the future of science and technology—both at U-M and beyond. DNA Origami and the accompanying exhibit at Hatcher Library are presented as part of the LSA Bicentennial Theme semester, “Michigan Horizons.”