Why can’t art and science intermingle? There is great potential for overlap between the two fields, and there absolutely should be more of it – they are both creative pursuits, in a way. When it comes to defining to the latest merger between the two fields, “creative” is the perfect descriptor.

Starry Night Origami
Image Credit: Ashwin Gopinath/Caltech

Scientists love starry nights

Vincent van Gogh’s quintessential painting “Starry Night” has always had a certain appeal to it for scientists – it has been recreated using bacteria and other mediums, including swirling paint on black water.

Now, scientists at Caltech have created their own miniature version of the iconic painting – only a dime’s width across – using folded DNA molecules.

In 2006, Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund folded DNA molecules into images such as smiley faces, snowflakes, and stars. Coined as “DNA origami,” a decade later scientists are taking that practice to the next level by recreating “Starry Night.”

Proof of a future in nano-construction

The monochrome “painting,” using shades of red and black, is a proof that extremely precise techniques can be utilized in creating extremely small scale, or “nanoscale,” devices such as computer circuits, conductive carbon nanotubes, and for incredibly efficient targeted drug delivery.

DNA “origami” allows scientists to fold a long DNA strand into any desired shape. This folded DNA strand can then function as a sort of scaffold onto which many kinds of nanometer-scale components can be attached and organized.

“Think of it a bit like the pegboards people use to organize tools in their garages, only in this case, the pegboard assembles itself from DNA strands and the tools likewise find their own positions,” says Rothemund.

“It happens in a test tube without human intervention, which is important because all of the parts are too small to manipulate efficiently, and we want to make billions of devices,” Rothemund continues.

The next step scientists are working on is extending the molecules’ life span, which is currently 45 seconds. Making the molecules emit a purer shade of red instead of the many shades they currently emit will allow the technique to be used for optical and quantum computing at the nanoscale.

The lead author of the subject, Ashwin Gopinath, says “aside from applications, there’s a lot of fundamental science to be done.”