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NYU Chemist Awarded 2016 Franklin Award for Pioneering Work on Novel Robotic Walker

New York University chemist Nadrian Seeman has been awarded the 2016 Franklin Award in chemistry for his pioneering work in founding the field of DNA nanotechnology.

Past recipients of the award, bestowed by the Philadelphia-based Franklin Institute, include Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Jane Goodall, Enrico Fermi, and Stephen Hawking, among others.

NYU Chemistry Professor Nadrian Seeman

The Institute recognized Seeman for “his conceptualization and demonstration that DNA can be used as a construction material that can spontaneously form sub-microscopic structures of diverse shapes and functions, with potential applications in disease treatment, mechanics, and computation.”

Seeman and the other seven Franklin Award recipients will be recognized at an April 21, 2016 ceremony in Philadelphia.

Seeman, the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry at NYU, founded and developed the field of DNA nanotechnology—which is now pursued by over a hundred laboratories across the globe—more than 30 years ago. His creations allow him to arrange molecular species and nanoscale objects with precision—similar to the way a robotic automobile factory can be told what kind of car to make. Seeman’s work led the Christian Science Monitor to conclude that “nanotechnology may have found its Henry Ford.”

In recent years, Seeman’s laboratory has made two significant breakthroughs in the field of nanoscience.

The first is the creation of self-assembled three-dimensional crystalline DNA structures, a scientific advance bridging the molecular world and the world where we live. To do this, Seeman and his colleagues created DNA crystals by making synthetic sequences of DNA that have the ability to self-assemble into a series of 3D triangle-like motifs. The creation of the crystals was dependent on putting “sticky ends”—small cohesive sequences on each end of the motif—that attach to other molecules and place them in a set order and orientation. The make-up of these sticky ends allows the motifs to attach to each other in a programmed fashion. A promising avenue for this work is in nanoelectronics, in which products are built from components no bigger than single molecules. Given the decreased flexibility and density and control over spatial positioning that 3D components would yield, manufacturers could build parts that are smaller and closer together as well as more sophisticated in design.

The second is a DNA assembly line, created with colleagues at China’s Nanjing University, which has the potential to build novel materials efficiently on the nanoscale.

“An industrial assembly line includes a factory, workers, and a conveyor system,” explains Seeman. “We have emulated each of those features using DNA components.”

The assembly line relies on three DNA-based components. The first is DNA origami, a composition that uses a few hundred short DNA strands to direct a very long DNA strand to form structures to any desired shape. DNA origami serves as the assembly line’s framework and also houses its track. The second are three DNA machines, attached as cassettes, that serve as programmable cargo-donating devices; they are attached to the origami in fixed positions. Changing the cassette’s control sequences allows the researchers to enable or prevent the donation of the cargoes to the growing construct by altering the position of a nanoscale robot arm. The third is a DNA “walker,” which is analogous to the chassis of a car being assembled. It moves by somersaulting along the assembly line’s track, stopping at the DNA machines to collect and carry the DNA cargo components, which consist of distinct metallic nanoparticles.

As the walker moves along the pathway prescribed by the origami tile track, it encounters sequentially the assembly line’s three DNA devices. These devices can be switched between an “on” state, allowing their cargo to be transferred to the walker, and an “off” state, in which no transfer occurs. In this way, the DNA product at the end of the assembly line may include cargo picked up from one, two, or three of the DNA machines.

Seeman, who has been on the NYU faculty since 1988, has a bachelor of science from the University of Chicago (1966) and a Ph.D. in crystallography/biochemistry from the University of Pittsburgh (1970). He did postdoctoral training at Columbia University and at MIT. NYU has recognized his contributions with the Margaret and Herman Sokol Faculty Award in the Sciences.

Seeman, born Dec. 16, 1945, was the founding president of the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation, and Engineering. He has received the American Chemical Society’s Nichols Medal as well as the Sidhu Award from the Pittsburgh Diffraction Society, a Popular Science Magazine Science and Technology Award, the Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, a Discover Magazine Emerging Technology Award, a Nanotech Briefs Nano50 Innovator Award, the World Technology Network Award in biotechnology, the Alexander Rich Lectureship from MIT, the Frontiers of Science Award from the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the Nanoscience Award of the ISNSCE, the Rozenberg Tulip Award in DNA Computing, the Einstein Professorship of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, the Jagadish Chandra Bose Triennial Gold Medal of the Bose Institute, and a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2010, Seeman was awarded the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, which he shared with Donald Eigler of IBM’s Almaden Research Center.


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