"This was not by design," Luo said.
Examination under an electron microscope shows that the material is made up of a mass of tiny spherical "bird's nests" of tangled DNA, about 1 micron (millionth of a meter) in diameter, further entangled to one another by longer DNA chains. It behaves something like a mass of rubber bands glued together: It has an inherent shape, but can be stretched and deformed.
Exactly how this works is "still being investigated," the researchers said, but they theorize that the elastic forces holding the shape are so weak that a combination of surface tension and gravity overcomes them; the gel just sags into a loose blob. But when it is immersed in water, surface tension is nearly zero there's water inside and out and buoyancy cancels gravity.
To demonstrate the effect, the researchers created hydrogels in molds shaped like the letters D, N and A. Poured out of the molds, the gels became amorphous liquids, but in water they morphed back into the letters. As a possible application, the team created a water-actuated switch. They made a short cylindrical gel infused with metal particles placed in an insulated tube between two electrical contacts. In liquid form the gel reaches both ends of the tube and forms a circuit. When water is added, the gel reverts to its shorter form that will not reach both ends. (The experiment is done with distilled water that does not conduct electricity.)
The DNA used in this work has a random sequence, and only occasional cross-linking was observed, Luo said. By designing the DNA to link in particular ways he hopes to be able to tune the properties of the new hydrogel.
|Contact: John Carberry|