DNA Origami Nanoturbines: Exploring the Futuristic World of Molecular Machines

DNA origami, the nanoscale folding of DNA helices into designed shapes, has unlocked a world of innovations in nanotechnology over the past decades. Now, researchers led by Prof. Cees Dekker at TU Delft have achieved a breakthrough in DNA origami: the creation of DNA nanoturbines that generate torque from ion flows across nanopores. Their pioneering results were published this month in Nature Nanotechnology.

These tiny DNA origami nanoturbines consist of three twisted DNA blades arranged around a central axle. When powered by ion currents and electric fields, these nanoturbines can spin at speeds up to 10 revolutions per second! With the designed chirality controlling the direction, they achieve directed rotation just like macroscale engines, but at the molecular level.

This work opens exciting possibilities to power nanorobots, drive nanoscale machinery, or transport molecular cargo in futuristic applications. By emulating nature’s nanomotors, these synthetic DNA nanoturbines constitute a transformative innovation in nanotechnology.

DNA origami nanoturbines
DNA origami nanoturbine. Image Cees Dekker Lab / SciXel

How DNA Origami Nanoturbines Work

DNA origami nanoturbines consist of a central axle decorated with three angled blades arranged in a chiral or twisted orientation. The blades can be designed in either a left-handed or right-handed orientation to control the direction of rotation. The nanoturbines are only about 25 nanometers in height – 10 times smaller than biological protein motors like ATP synthase.

To operate the nanoturbines, they are held in place within a man-made nanopore just tens of nanometers wide. This nanopore acts like a stator or stationary anchor point for the rotary nanomachine.

When an ion flow is induced through the nanopore by a salt concentration difference, the liquid movement makes the angled turbine blades spin. The blades are oriented to amplify the small fluid forces into circular motion.

Applying an electric field across the nanopore also generates fluid flows that drive the chiral turbine blades to turn. The turbine can operate autonomously powered by these electrochemical gradients, similar to natural biological motors.

The designed chirality or “handedness” of the three twisted blades determines the direction in which the nanoturbine rotates when subjected to the ionic flows. This demonstrates precise control over the nanomachine’s motion using its engineered geometry.

By harnessing simple physics phenomena like electrophoresis and hydraulics at the nanoscale, the DNA origami turbines achieve directed rotational force similar to macroscale engines. This opens up possibilities for powering future nanomachines or doing useful work at the molecular level.

DNA origami nanoturbines: flow-driven DNA rotor
Flow-driven DNA rotor. Image Cees Dekker Lab / SciXel

Benefits and Capabilities

The DNA origami nanoturbines offer several noteworthy benefits:

  • They can generate torque in the range of tens of piconewton nanometers, which is comparable to the torque produced by natural protein-based motors like ATP synthase. This demonstrates their capability to perform useful rotary work.
  •  The designed chirality or handedness of the 3 twisted blades controls the rotation direction of the nanoturbine. Left-handed blades make it spin counterclockwise, while right-handed blades induce clockwise rotation. This shows precise engineering control over the nanomachine’s motion.
  •  When powered by naturally occurring transmembrane electrochemical gradients, the nanoturbines operate autonomously like biological motors. No external manual cycling between conditions is required to sustain the motion.
  •  Looking forward, the DNA origami turbines could potentially help power future nanoscale machines and robots. Their driven rotational force output could perform tasks or do work at the molecular level.

By emulating natural biological motors in a man-made nanosystem, DNA origami nanoturbines point towards futuristic applications in nanomedicine, molecular robotics, and other nanotechnologies. Their ability to harness chemical energy at the nanoscale could drive a new generation of innovation.

DNA origami nanoturbines: DNA traversing a solid-state nanopore.
DNA traversing a solid-state nanopore. Image Cees Dekker Lab / SciXel

Challenges and Limitations

While showing promising capabilities, DNA origami nanoturbines still face some challenges:

  • Interactions with the surface of the nanopore chamber can affect the consistency of the rotation speed. More research is needed to improve uniformity.
  •  The power efficiency of the nanoturbines needs enhancement before they are ready for practical applications. Currently, most of the input energy is lost rather than converted to useful rotational force.
  •  Integrating the synthetic DNA nanostructures into biological membranes while maintaining control remains difficult. This integration would be key for applications like drug delivery.
  •  AI algorithms can help generate creative origami designs, but the rationale behind the designs is often not understandable to humans. More interpretability is needed.
  •  Other challenges include improving longevity, torque strength, and efficiency when operating in physiological environments.

Ongoing advances in materials, manufacturing processes, and modeling will help overcome these limitations. With diligent research, DNA origami nanoturbines could become a transformative technology. But more work is required to go from proof-of-concept to real-world impact.

DNA origami nanoturbines: 

The NEOtrap where a single protein is held in a nanopore that is capped with a DNA origami sphere.
Image The NEOtrap where a single protein is held in a nanopore that is capped with a DNA origami sphere. Image Cees Dekker Lab / SciXel


DNA origami nanoturbines represent an exciting advance in synthetic nanomachine engineering. Their compact size, autonomous operation, and controllable rotation emulate natural biological motors at the nanoscale.

The key points are that DNA origami allows custom-designed nanoscale geometry, and twisting the arranged DNA helices can induce a chiral torque. This enables nanoturbines just ~25 nm tall to generate directed rotary force when powered by simple ion flows and electric fields across a nanopore.

While still requiring optimization, these proof-of-concept nanoturbines exhibit remarkable capabilities. Their nanonewton-meter torque outputs come close to biological protein motors. They rotate persistently when powered by electrochemical gradients, no manual cycling is needed.

Looking forward, combining DNA nanotechnology with advances in materials, manufacturing, and AI design could unlock the futuristic potential of synthetic nanomotors. If technical challenges like efficiency and biological integration are overcome, applications in areas like targeted drug delivery, molecular robotics, and nanomedicine may be possible.

By mimicking nature’s nanoscale machines with synthetic analogs, DNA origami nanoturbines could ultimately pioneer a new era in molecular engineering. The creative possibilities are as endless as DNA helices circling a nanopore.