Week 6: Biomachines

Notes from Dr. Rebecca Schulman Lecture on Bioengineering and Nanotechnology

  • Note on artificial intelligence: High level of difficulty replicating the design and function of simple organisms such as ants, more so in many cases than replicating aspects of high level human intelligence?
  • That said, can we create:
    • self-assembled structure across scales?
    • a cell?
    • self replicating materials?
    • self healing materials?
    • Shape-changing materials or materials with controlled dynamics?
  • Biology points at fundamental challenges in material design.  We should be able to change what materials are doing, have them react for directly to their environment for example.
  • Could we imagine a “matter computer”: A way to automate the building of structures on a nano-scale to be able to design at a more feasible human scale.
  • Nanostructures can be made by weaving DNA, which is comparable to weaving with an asymmetrical slinky, meaning that we have limited control of structures designed on a nanoscale.
  • Overview of DNA origami: how to construct nanostructures by folding pieces of DNA.  
    • How do we use our knowledge of DNA structuring on a nanoscale to make material do what we want?  
    • Directly scaling up nanostructures is not feasible since DNA easily gets deformed.  
    • With the amount of DNA that would be involved in just extending simple DNA origami structures, the failure rate is about 100%.  
    • Instead, how can we get molecules to do more complex jobs?  
    • Could we imagine building complex objects by replicating and evolving genetic code?
  • Overview of the self-replication of clay through crystal growth, no enzymes or other additional substances involved.
  • By switching the growth “rules” we can build libraries of complex patterns from a small number of substrates.


William Shih lecturing on DNA origami
Images of DNA weavings on a nano scale


After the lecture by Rebecca Schulman, we broke out into groups for a brainstorming session on applications of nanotechnology.  Ideas do not have to be feasible or “good”.

Group 1 Prompt: Redesign a tool you use commonly as a nano scale device.

Ideas: A crane that would use the technique discussed by Dr. Rebecca Schulman of programmable molecules that grow fibers and move about randomly in the process of diffusion until it meets its specified partner molecule and sticks to it.  The fiber would then swing the object and move it to the desired location.

Group 2 Prompt: Design a material that could self-replicate to form a structure on a larger scale.

Ideas: Self-replicating wall pigment that would cover a wall with a single drop of pigment with a built-in kill switch that would be activated when an organic surface was detected.

Group 3 Prompt:  Redesign a non-living object as a pseudo-living machine. Redesign a living organism as a pseudo-living machine. 

Ideas: Instead of a tooth brush and tooth paste, a genetically-modified organism that would inhabit the mouth and feed off of plaque and other corrosive bacteria.
A robotic pollinator that could perform the roles of living pollinators such as bees.


The remainder of the day was spent reviewing readings “Applications of Designed Biological Systems” from Synthetic Biology Primer and Chapter 1 & 2 of Synthetic Aesthetics.

This opened up a discussion of ethics in relation to Bioengineering and the even bigger question of what constitutes life and intelligence.

We also discussed some of the applications of bioengineering laid out in Chapter 7 of Synthetic Biology: a Primer.