Automated top-down design technique simplifies creation of DNA origami nanostructures

Nanoparticles for drug delivery and cell targeting, nanoscale robots, custom-tailored optical devices, and DNA as a storage medium are among the possible applications
May 27, 2016

The boldfaced line, known as a spanning tree, follows the desired geometric shape of the target DNA origami design method, touching each vertex just once. A spanning tree algorithm is used to map out the proper routing path for the DNA strand. (credit: Public Domain)

MIT, Baylor College of Medicine, and Arizona State University Biodesign Institute researchers have developed a radical new top-down DNA origami* design method based on a computer algorithm that allows for creating designs for DNA nanostructures by simply inputting a target shape.

DNA origami (using DNA to design and build geometric structures) has already proven wildly successful in creating myriad forms in 2- and 3- dimensions, which conveniently self-assemble when the designed DNA sequences are mixed together. The tricky part is preparing the proper DNA sequence and routing design for scaffolding and staple strands to achieve the desired target structure. Typically, this is painstaking work that must be carried out manually.

The new algorithm, which is reported together with a novel synthesis approach in the journal Science, promises to eliminate all that and expands the range of possible applications of DNA origami in biomolecular science and nanotechnology. Think nanoparticles for drug delivery and cell targeting, nanoscale robots in medicine and industry, custom-tailored optical devices, and most interesting: DNA as a storage medium, offering retention times in the millions of years.**

Shape-shifting, top-down software

Unlike traditional DNA origami, in which the structure is built up manually by hand, the team’s radical top-down autonomous design method begins with an outline of the desired form and works backward in stages to define the required DNA sequence that will properly fold to form the finished product.

“The Science paper turns the problem around from one in which an expert designs the DNA needed to synthesize the object, to one in which the object itself is the starting point, with the DNA sequences that are needed automatically defined by the algorithm,” said Mark Bathe, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, who led the research. “Our hope is that this automation significantly broadens participation of others in the use of this powerful molecular design paradigm.”

The algorithm, which is known as DAEDALUS (DNA Origami Sequence Design Algorithm for User-defined Structures) after the Greek craftsman and artist who designed labyrinths that resemble origami’s complex scaffold structures, can build any type of 3-D shape, provided it has a closed surface. This can include shapes with one or more holes, such as a torus.

A simplified version of the  top-down procedure used to design scaffolded DNA origami nanostructures. It starts with a polygon corresponding to the target shape. Software translates a wireframe version of this structure into a plan for routing DNA scaffold and staple strands. That enables a 3D DNA-based atomic-level structural model that is then validated using 3D cryo-EM reconstruction. (credit: adapted from Biodesign Institute images)

With the new technique, the target geometric structure is first described in terms of a wire mesh made up of polyhedra, with a network of nodes and edges. A DNA scaffold using strands of custom length and sequence is generated, using a “spanning tree” algorithm — basically a map that will automatically guide the routing of the DNA scaffold strand through the entire origami structure, touching each vertex in the geometric form once. Complementary staple strands are then assigned and the final DNA structural model or nanoparticle self-assembles, and is then validated using 3D cryo-EM reconstruction.

The software allows for fabricating a variety of geometric DNA objects, including 35 polyhedral forms (Platonic, Archimedean, Johnson and Catalan solids), six asymmetric structures, and four polyhedra with nonspherical topology, using inverse design principles — no manual base-pair designs needed.

To test the method, simpler forms known as Platonic solids were first fabricated, followed by increasingly complex structures. These included objects with nonspherical topologies and unusual internal details, which had never been experimentally realized before. Further experiments confirmed that the DNA structures produced were potentially suitable for biological applications since they displayed long-term stability in serum and low-salt conditions.

Biological research uses

The research also paves the way for designing nanoscale systems mimicking the properties of viruses, photosynthetic organisms, and other sophisticated products of natural evolution. One such application is a scaffold for viral peptides and proteins for use as vaccines. The surface of the nanoparticles could be designed with any combination of peptides and proteins, located at any desired location on the structure, in order to mimic the way in which a virus appears to the body’s immune system.

The researchers demonstrated that the DNA nanoparticles are stable for more than six hours in serum, and are now attempting to increase their stability further.

The nanoparticles could also be used to encapsulate the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool. The CRISPR-Cas9 tool has enormous potential in therapeutics, thanks to its ability to edit targeted genes. However, there is a significant need to develop techniques to package the tool and deliver it to specific cells within the body, Bathe says.

This is currently done using viruses, but these are limited in the size of package they can carry, restricting their use. The DNA nanoparticles, in contrast, are capable of carrying much larger gene packages and can easily be equipped with molecules that help target the right cells or tissue.

The most exciting aspect of the work, however, is that it should significantly broaden participation in the application of this technology, Bathe says, much like 3-D printing has done for complex 3-D geometric models at the macroscopic scale.

Hao Yan directs the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at Arizona State University and is the Milton D. Glick Distinguished Professor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Molecular Sciences at ASU.

* DNA origami brings the ancient Japanese method of paper folding down to the molecular scale. The basics are simple: Take a length of single-stranded DNA and guide it into a desired shape, fastening the structure together using shorter “staple strands,” which bind in strategic places along the longer length of DNA. The method relies on the fact that DNA’s four nucleotide letters—A, T, C, & G stick together in a consistent manner — As always pairing with Ts and Cs with Gs.

The DNA molecule in its characteristic double stranded form is fairly stiff, compared with single-stranded DNA, which is flexible. For this reason, single stranded DNA makes for an ideal lace-like scaffold material. Further, its pairing properties are predictable and consistent (unlike RNA).

** A single gram of DNA can store about 700 terabytes of information — an amount equivalent to 14,000 50-gigabyte Blu-ray disks — and could potentially be operated with a fraction of the energy required for other information storage options.

Biodesign Institute at ASU | DNA Origami

Abstract of Designer nanoscale DNA assemblies programmed from the top down

Scaffolded DNA origami is a versatile means of synthesizing complex molecular architectures. However, the approach is limited by the need to forward-design specific Watson-Crick base-pairing manually for any given target structure. Here, we report a general, top-down strategy to design nearly arbitrary DNA architectures autonomously based only on target shape. Objects are represented as closed surfaces rendered as polyhedral networks of parallel DNA duplexes, which enables complete DNA scaffold routing with a spanning tree algorithm. The asymmetric polymerase chain reaction was applied to produce stable, monodisperse assemblies with custom scaffold length and sequence that are verified structurally in 3D to be high fidelity using single-particle cryo-electron microscopy. Their long-term stability in serum and low-salt buffer confirms their utility for biological as well as nonbiological applications.