Research Highlight: Nano-scale Self-Assembly

If you wanted to construct a machine just a hundred nanometers in size, what would it take? At this scale atomic forces are significant, gravity is not, and everything is in constant motion as individual molecules collide and fly apart at high speed. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced is the simplest: how can two parts, A and B, be attached? Self-assembly addresses this problem with a simple solution: design A and B so that they attach themselves. By designing individual parts to form strong chemical bonds with each other in specific configurations, a larger superstructure or assembly can built “hands-free" by letting parts combine into pre-engineered configurations.

Building complex machines requires working simultaneously on two major problems: how are parts built and how are they combined to produce complex assemblies? Effectively solving both problems requires close collaboration between both theoretical and applied scientists. Here in the Department of Computer Science, Professor Diane Souvaine and graduate student Andrew Winslow work with other computer scientists from MIT to develop methods and limits for building complex nano-machines while minimizing the time, materials and effort needed in the construction. During Summer 2010 they were joined by two Tufts Undergraduates, Michelle Ichinco and Tony Lin. Michelle studied the connection between efficient assembly and data compression, and implemented a novel web tool for automatically generating assembly procedures for use in the lab. Tony studied the theoretical limits of constructable structures built out of a type of building block designed by Hyunmin Yi and his lab.

Close collaboration with the laboratory of Dr. Hyunmin Yi in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Tufts has provided a practical implementation of theoretical results. In turn, the practical design constraints encountered by Yi's lab inform the theoretical models studied. Nano-scale self-assembly has the potential to allow the construction of machines far too small to be built by existing methods. This technology could be used to produce biomedical devices, extremely strong and lightweight materials, or faster computers. By developing an understanding of both the practical and theoretical difficulties in its use, Tufts and MIT scientists are advancing the knowledge in this area.

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