$2M NSF grant furthers DNA nanotechnology research at Ohio State

Professor Carlos Castro talks to postdoctoral scholars in his research lab.
Professor Carlos Castro (center) discusses a project in the laboratory with postdoctoral scholars Melika Shahhosseini (left) and Wolfgang Pfeifer.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Carlos Castro and Physics Professor Michael Poirier received a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create novel DNA nanodevices that could have far-reaching applications in sensing, soft-robotics, energy, information storage and medicine.

The award is part of NSF’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future (DMREF) program, which aims to foster the design, discovery and development of advanced materials to address major societal challenges.

Castro and Poirier received the grant in collaboration with Professor Gaurav Arya in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Sciences at Duke University. As part of the collaborative effort, $1.45 million will support researchers at The Ohio State University and $0.55 million will support Duke researchers.

Castro, Poirier and Arya have been collaborating for several years to bring together expertise in DNA nanotechnology, single molecule biophysics, and theoretical and computational modeling. Their recent proposal is focused on developing materials with unique, useful, mechanical and dynamic functions based on assemblies of dynamic DNA devices.

“Our team has unique expertise in the design of dynamic DNA devices,” said Castro, who is the Ralph W. Kurtz Chair in Mechanical Engineering. “Here we aim to construct those devices into materials where the structure and properties of the individual devices and their interactions within larger assemblies enable behaviors that are difficult or impossible to achieve in typical engineering materials.”

This is the team’s second time receiving the NSF DMREF grant. Their first project, supported by $1.7 million in funding, was focused on designing materials consisting of assemblies of dynamic devices and using dynamic behavior to sense applied forces and communicate signals between neighboring devices. That work led to 11 publications, and new design and analysis tools that are being widely used by the research community.

“In our prior collaboration we developed devices that can sense things like forces or changes in the solution environment,” Castro said. “Building on this foundation, we aim to design materials that can detect multiple signals, store and process that information, and exhibit unique mechanical or dynamic properties, like shape morphing or mechanical instabilities.”

Their research has three focus areas:

  • Assemblies with special mechanical properties or behaviors: The researchers aim to make assemblies that exhibit unusual shape changes or mechanical instabilities under applied forces.
  • Signal transcending materials: Their goal is to make devices that can sense various parameters in the local environment, process information based on those parameters and create a detectable response such as a fluorescence readout or release of another molecule.
  • Designing devices that can be triggered to assemble into various types of networks: Different input signals to the devices can lead to assembly of distinct networks with tailored properties, such as stiffness or porosity.

“Our approach is to construct these materials from nanoscale DNA building blocks with precisely designed structure, and tailored mechanical and dynamic properties,” Castro said. “We will establish principles for materials with new functions using molecular simulation and machine learning approaches to identify nanodevice assembly designs for on-demand material properties.”

The funding will support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers for each laboratory and cover research materials and supplies necessary to make and characterize the proposed devices. The project will also provide unique interdisciplinary training for students who will experience team research spanning Ohio State and Duke. Students will also have the opportunity to visit collaborating labs for workshops and extended training.

Collaborating with other laboratories with different expertise has allowed Castro and Poirier to have impactful research projects.

“Having a team that works so well together has also made the overall project exciting and enjoyable,” Castro said. “We are thrilled to be able to continue making a strong impact on developing new DNA-based materials.”

by College of Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering communications staff