Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 91st Colloid & Surface Science Symposium held at The City College of New York (CUNY). The three-day symposium is held annually by the Colloid and Surface Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society and showcases the most recent advances in colloid and surface science. The conference also features integrative material science research that incorporates other scientific disciplines such as biophysics, environmental science, and biotechnology. Graduate students, postdocs, professors, and vendors attend from all over the world, setting an international stage for the presentation and discussion of new advances in the field of colloids and surface science.
This year’s symposium featured approximately 500 oral and poster presentations that attendees could choose to explore. I attended many lectures in the areas of electrokinetics and microfluidics, emulsions, bubbles and foams, particles at interfaces, and applications of colloids and surface science in medicine.
It was truly an amazing experience for someone starting their journey in the world of material science because I had the opportunity to hear detailed lectures on topics ranging from the treatment of thromboses using microbubbles to the application of polymer ionic liquids for interface control and hybrid design.
When I read papers in journals and science-based magazines, I often have questions about the details of the research. Unfortunately, my questions often go unanswered. The beauty of a symposium such as the one I attended is that it not only provides an opportunity to hear, firsthand, about groundbreaking research, but it also provides a venue to have questions answered by the person who can best explain their findings, the researcher who first completed the work. So, when Robert Macfarlane from MIT presented his groundbreaking research on Polymer- and DNA-Directed Assembly of Nanocomposites I was ecstatic.
The goal of material science is to discover and design new materials that can solve specific technological dilemmas both by examining the properties of established materials and by using chemistry, physics, and engineering to construct novel materials. Developing new processes to manufacture these materials is an integral part of materials science research. Nanocomposites are materials that have recently garnered a significant amount of attention. These composites are an important class of materials that integrate at least two different phases and achieve physical characteristics unavailable in single-phase materials. However, assembling the composites in a controlled manner is a difficult task.
During his lecture, Macfarlane explained that he had created an adaptable process to precisely construct nanocomposites using the sequence dependent recognition properties of DNA, a simple yet robust solution to the complexity of the nanocomposite manufacturing process. Macfarlane presented work that showed that DNA can be used as a nanoscale binder to link individual nanoparticles together. The idea is to create vast arrays of bound nanoparticles to construct superlattices that achieve custom crystal geometries. The physiochemical properties of a biologic material, DNA, were used to engineer the construction of nanoparticle composites elegantly. Click here to Macfarlane’s full paper.
In my opinion, what is remarkable is that a single fundamental biologic principle was used to solve a complex problem. Thus Macfarlane’s innovative solution reminded me of a quote by Albert Einstein, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Incorporating a single powerful biologic tool avoided surrendering to the complexity of the engineering problem.
The concept that DNA, the complex molecule that is the essential building block of all living things, could also be used as the building block of new nanocomposite materials that have the potential to travel to space, create a variety of building materials, and generate new technologies, is certainly an exciting development.