If you want to work with DNA nanotechnology, you should study art. 

That was the advice given by the field’s creator, Nadrian “Ned” Seeman, at our Washington, DC, headquarters Thursday night. You should also, of course, study math, physics, computer science, and a whole lot of chemistry, he recommended. But he cautioned audience members against “stopping there.”

“Art is incredibly important to us when we figure out what to make and do,” Seeman said. 

Seeman expressed this explicitly during his closing remarks. But he also communicated it implicitly, using paintings by Rousseau, Bruegel, Matisse, and Delvaux to illustrate points throughout his lecture. And, of course, he included his favorite artist, Escher, whose engraving “Depth” served as a major inspiration to Seeman when he first developed the concept of using DNA’s inherent coding ability to construct nano-sized shapes and structures.

Seeman related that thinking about the print’s infinitely repeating quadruple-finned flying fish, which strongly resemble a fleet of zeppelins, helped him realize that DNA could be used to construct shapes that branched in three dimensions. 

At its essence, the field of DNA nanotechnology research uses DNA’s chemical information storage ability to control the structure of matter, Seeman explained. Although it encodes the genetic material of plants, animals, and bacteria, he instructed the audience to forget about DNA’s biological role during his talk. 

“We’re only going to be talking about DNA the molecule and the structures that you can make with it,” Seeman said, joking that his work is about, “taking natural material and making an unnatural object with it.” 

He illustrated how DNA molecules can be hijacked into building shapes and patterns, showing how a basic 3-D triangle can be repeated into a rhombohedron shape. DNA molecules can even be turned into an assembly line for constructing simple machines and devices, including a tiny “walker” that moves like an inchworm.

What’s next for the field of DNA nanotechnology? Seeman said he doesn’t know.  In the early years after Seeman first conceived of the field, there were only a handful of people researching the possibility of using DNA molecules in this way. 

“With more than 275 labs doing DNA nanotechnology now, I don’t have to know,” he added.

The program was co-hosted by the Kavli Foundation, the Royal Embassy of Norway, and the Norwegian Academy of Science. Seeman received the Kavli Prize for Nanotechnology in 2010.