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Scientists Recreate ‘Starry Night’ Using DNA Origami

Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night has long been one of the most well-loved works of Western art. Recreating the painting is a fairly common homage to the legendary Dutch post-Impressionist painter.  What is less common, however, is using cutting-edge science and engineering to recreate the seminal painting. A team of bioengineers from California Institute of Technology have done just that when they created their own version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night using folded strands of DNA and tiny nanocrystals.

The researchers in this study described their DNA-folding technique in their recent publication in Nature. Co-author and lead researcher in this study Paul Rothemund has previously made headlines with the same DNA folding technique when he composed microscopic sculptures using folded DNA in 2006.

An example of Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund's DNA "origami"

An example of Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund’s DNA “origami”

This version of Starry Night began with scientists folding sections of DNA strands and then allowing each to self-assemble into the desired shape. This shape made up the ‘frame’ or ‘scaffold’ that would become the painting – almost like a coloring book image that has not been colored yet.

The "painting" is composed of a microscopic DNA frame loaded with photonic crystals.

The “painting” is composed of a microscopic DNA frame loaded with photonic crystals.

To illuminate the ‘painting’ and give it color, scientists attached over 65,000 photonic crystals to the DNA frame. Photonic crystals are nano-scale crystal lattices that can scatter or disperse light in remarkable ways. These crystals can be manufactured to only reflect or scatter certain wavelengths of light or even bend light 90 degrees without losing amplitude.

Photonic crystals have unique properties that allow them to bend light without losing intensity

Photonic crystals have unique properties that allow them to bend light without losing intensity.

This experiment was designed to test the viability of molecular manufacturing techniques, such as creating nano-scale optical circuits. By manipulating DNA frames into controlling the amount of light that passes through each microscopic crystal, scientists could potentially create nanophotonic devices – tiny optical circuits that run on light.

Further research could even give way to DNA that can self-structure through manipulation of the replication process, giving way to molecular manufacturing techniques that could produce working nanoscale electronic devices or computers.