Nature builds flawless diamonds, sapphires and other gems. Now a Northwestern University research team is the first to build near-perfect single crystals out of nanoparticles and DNA, using the same structure favored by nature.

A research group developed the “recipe” for using nanomaterials as atoms, DNA as bonds and a little heat to form tiny crystals. This single-crystal recipe builds on superlattice techniques a lab has been developing for nearly two decades.

Mirkin, an experimentalist, teamed up with Monica Olvera de la Cruz, a theoretician, to evaluate the new technique and develop an understanding of it. Given a set of nanoparticles and a specific type of DNA, Olvera de la Cruz showed they can accurately predict the 3-D structure, or crystal shape, into which the disordered components will self-assemble.

The general set of instructions gives researchers unprecedented control over the type and shape of crystals they can build. The Northwestern team worked with gold nanoparticles, but the recipe can be applied to a variety of materials, with potential applications in the fields of materials science, photonics, electronics and catalysis.

A single crystal has order: its crystal lattice is continuous and unbroken throughout. The absence of defects in the material can give these crystals unique mechanical, optical and electrical properties, making them very desirable.

In the Northwestern study, strands of complementary DNA act as bonds between disordered gold nanoparticles, transforming them into an orderly crystal. The researchers determined that the ratio of the DNA linker’s length to the size of the nanoparticle is critical.

“If you get the right ratio it makes a perfect crystal - isn’t that fun?”

The ratio affects the energy of the faces of the crystals, which determines the final crystal shape. Ratios that don’t follow the recipe lead to large fluctuations in energy and result in a sphere, not a faceted crystal, she explained. With the correct ratio, the energies fluctuate less and result in a crystal every time.

To achieve a self-assembling single crystal in the lab, the research team reports taking two sets of gold nanoparticles outfitted with complementary DNA linker strands. Working with approximately 1 million nanoparticles in water, they heated the solution to a temperature just above the DNA linkers’ melting point and then slowly cooled the solution to room temperature, which took two or three days.

The very slow cooling process encouraged the single-stranded DNA to find its complement, resulting in a high-quality single crystal approximately three microns wide.

The researchers determined that the length of DNA connected to each gold nanoparticle can’t be much longer than the size of the nanoparticle. In the study, the gold nanoparticles varied from five to 20 nanometers in diameter; for each, the DNA length that led to crystal formation was about 18 base pairs and six single-base “sticky ends.”

This story is reprinted from material from Northwestern University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.