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.
“Imagine having a million balls of two colors, some red, some blue, in a container, and you try shaking them until you get alternating red and blue balls,” Mirkin explained. “It will never happen.
“But if you attach DNA that is complementary to nanoparticles — the red has one kind of DNA, say, the blue its complement — and now you shake, or in our case, just stir in water, all the particles will find one another and link together,” he said. “They beautifully assemble into a three-dimensional crystal that we predicted computationally and realized experimentally.”
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 process gives the system enough time and energy for all the particles to arrange themselves and find the spots they should be in,” Mirkin said.
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.”
“There's no reason we can't grow extraordinarily large single crystals in the future using modifications of our technique,” said Mirkin, who also is a professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering and director of Northwestern's International Institute for Nanotechnology.
The title of the paper is “DNA-mediated nanoparticle crystallization into Wulff polyhedra.”
In addition to Mirkin and Olvera de la Cruz, authors of the paper are Evelyn Auyeung (first author), Ting I. N. G. Li, Andrew J. Senesi, Abrin L. Schmucker and Bridget C. Pals, all from Northwestern.