Foresight Update 23
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology Awarded
For Pioneering Synthesis
of 3-D DNA Objects
by Lewis M. Phelps
In recognition of pioneering work to synthesize complex
three-dimensional structures with DNA molecules, Foresight
Institute awarded the 1995
Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology to Nadrian C.
Seeman, Ph.D., chemistry professor at New York University.
The Feynman Prize, including a $10,000 cash award, is given
biennially by Foresight Institute in recognition of scientific
work that most advances the development of molecular
nanotechnology. The prize was presented by K. Eric Drexler,
Ph.D., founder and chairman of Foresight Institute. In presenting
the award, Drexler said, "Ned Seeman's work is particularly
significant because it provides the first systematic way of
designing and building large three- dimensional molecular
Drexler presented the award during the fourth Foresight
Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, at which 300
participants from 16 nations heard 30 presentations on scientific
progress toward nanotechnology and policy implications of
nanotechnology. The conference was held November 9-11 in Palo
Seeman received the award for developing ways to construct
three-dimensional structures, including cubes and more complex
polyhedra, from synthesized DNA molecules. Since natural DNA is a
linear strand, scientists hadn't previously known how to create
complex DNA structures. Seeman found how to attach strands of DNA
projecting from points along another DNA strand. In addition to
this DNA branching technique, he also has created knots and
catenanes (linked molecular loops) with synthesized DNA chains.
These techniques create the means to construct complex devices on
a nanometer scale.
gives the 1995 Feynman Prize lecture
In a lucid and witty acceptance speech at which he described his
work, Seeman referred to art works by E.C. Escher from which he
had drawn inspiration, a photo of light fixtures created from
human bones in an Italian monastery, and a deity-invoking flow
chart to describe the frustrating process of crystal creation in
Seeman explained that he came at his award-winning solution from
his background in crystallography. He and his colleagues were
frustrated at their inability to crystallize molecules in which
they were interested. While studying Holliday junctions in DNA
(points at which four strands of DNA form four double helical
arms about a central branch), he realized that it would be
possible to create a synthetic DNA with more than four branching
points. In a flash of inspiration "while sitting in the
campus pub one afternoon," Seeman recognized that six-arm
junctions could be used to create cubic lattices, he said. He was
inspired by an M.C. Escher woodcut, Depth, picturing
a school of fishlike creatures swimming in parallel in three
dimensions, "just like the molecules in a crystal."
Since that inspiration, Seeman and his colleagues have built
complex geometric figures from DNA, he said. Their progress was
aided by automated synthesis of DNA, which was developed about
that time. His constructions include DNA cubic structures and
more complex polyhedra.
One problem Seeman faces is non-rigidity ("floppiness")
of his three-dimensional DNA constructs. He illustrated the
nature of the problem with a picture of a marshmallow impaled by
uncooked rottini pasta as a metaphor for floppy joints holding
together relatively rigid strands.
Although he has synthesized more complicated structures,
including a truncated octahedron (a 14 catenane), he's going back
to simpler molecules now, seeking to get around the floppiness
problem. To do so, he is working with an alternating tetrahedron
form, a concept for which Buckminster Fuller got a patent.
Seeman said he is hoping to use architectural properties of DNA
to direct the assembly of other molecules.
The Feynman Prize is named in honor of Nobel Laureate Caltech
physicist Richard P.
Feynman. His 1959 talk at Caltech, "There's Plenty
of Room at the Bottom," first pointed in the direction
of molecular manufacturing.
For more information, see on the Web
Judges for 1995 Feynman Prize
- K. Eric
Drexler, molecular nanotechnologist at the
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.
- Carl Feynman, computer scientist.
A. Goddard III, professor of chemistry and
applied physics at Caltech.
- Tracy Handel, professor of molecular and cell
biology at UC Berkeley.
- Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for
Molecular Manufacturing and President of Teknowledge Inc.
Kantrowitz, professor of engineering at Dartmouth
- Ralph C. Merkle,
computational nanotechnologist at the Xerox Palo Alto
Minsky, MIT Media Lab professor.
- Charles Musgrave, Department of Chemical
Engineering at MIT and winner of the 1993 Feynman Prize.
Nilsson, professor of computer science at
Stanford's Robotics Laboratory.
Rohrer of IBM Zurich, Nobel Laureate in Physics.
M. Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard.
Toward Molecular Manufacturing
Detailed by Foresight
by Lewis M. Phelps
Much remains to be accomplished before molecular manufacturing
becomes reality, but computer simulation and laboratory
experiments are moving steadily in that direction. Challenges
abound, but no insurmountable barriers have materialized as
That summarizes the view observers drew from technical
presentations and policy discussions about molecular
nanotechnology at the Fourth Foresight
Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. The three-day
gathering of the world's foremost scientists who are working on
nanotechnology-related projects was held November 9-11 in Palo
Alto, CA. More than 300 people drawn from 16 countries
participated in the conference. Corporate and institutional
sponsors (see separate box)
significantly contributed to the conference success.
Conference chair Ralph Merkle
told Update at the end of the conference that the tone of this
year's event differed substantially from previous years.
"There are a lot more grey heads in the audience," he
said. "That means very bright and highly regarded senior
people have joined the discussion. The feasibility of
nanotechnology is no longer in doubt among most scientists; they
are now turning their attention and resources to the challenges
of bringing molecular manufacturing from theory into
Some two dozen technical topics, plus other policy, business,
legal and economic aspects of nanotechnology were addressed
during the conference. Additional researchers presented their
findings using poster exhibits describing results of research
they had undertaken.
As Foresight Institute moves more and more toward basing its
communications upon the World Wide Web, more
nanotechnology-related information will become available on the
Web. In particular, Merkle says that most presentations given at
the conference will be available on the Web and linked from the
conference page at http://nano.xerox.com/nanotech/nano4.html.
With that information available in detail, and with tapes also
available, Update does not plan to report exhaustively on the
conference proceedings. A complete
listing of the speakers, and their topics, accompanies this
Among the conference highlights:
- Retired Admiral
David Jeremiah, former Vice Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, discussed global
security implications of nanotechnology. After
painting a bleak picture of a politically unstable future
world, Jeremiah summarized a future world in which
"idealogy will be a major factor [in which] good or
bad leaders will inspire the passion of five, 500, 5000,
or 5 million people with consequences that will require
some form of military force." He also forecast that
"economics will play an increasing role in national
security." He sees a world of continuing regional
conflicts, in which "there will be a high demand to
protect our own information and exploit open source and
our opponent's intelligence." Battlefields of the
future will feature "small, lethal, sensing,
emitting, flying, crawling, exploding and thinking
objects that may make the battlefield (or sea) highly
lethal to humans in steel (or ceramic, or carbon-fiber)
boxes. While there will be an enormous increase in the
mass of sensors and other minute devices on the
battlefield, there will be fewer weapons."
- A panel of four speakers (George
Paul Gaber and Richard
Colton) focused the attention of
researchers on the need (as Gaber put it) to "do the
science that will lead to something useful."
Panelists singled out areas where a need for nano-scale
devices is most apparent, including (as Whitesides
proposed) biological sciences ("probes that are
small on a mammalian cell scale"), space launch
related items, near-field optics, computer memory, x-ray
fabrication, the human genome project, and national
security-related projects (especially a highly efficient
battery). In the future, said Gaber, "The technical
hurdles will be very, very steep. Getting funding will be
difficult; you have to be prepared to see what will spin
off your research in the near term to keep the project
- Neil Jacobstein, President of Teknowledge Inc.
and chairman of the Institute
for Molecular Manufacturing, discussed the challenges
of converting technological breakthroughs into commercial
success, noting among other things that "being first
is not enough," the need to "limit the number
of breakthroughs needed to succeed," and the need to
"distinguish technologies from markets." In the
rapidly changing business climate we face today,
"there is no finish line," he said.
"Technical mastery at one level is no more than a
ticket to get into the next round."
- Ralph Merkle
described an architecture for an assembler which is
simpler than previous proposals. He also discussed
convergent assembly - a manufacturing architecture very
different from an assembler - intended to build large
complex structures with molecular precision by
successively assembling larger parts from smaller parts.
Colton of the U.S Naval Research Laboratory
outlined Tip-Surface Interactions research conducted at
NRL. He discussed one technology that his group has
developed which allows identification of chemical
compounds, even individual molecules, eight orders of
magnitude more sensitive than other available
technologies. This technology should provide the military
with a means to detect and alert for presence of viruses
and toxins without having to wait hours or even days to
collect enough sample, he said. The same technique has
broad implications for civilian applications in medicine
and other areas, he said.
Brenner of North Carolina State University
presented his findings on "Simulated Engineering of
Nanostructures." He outlined a molecular dynamics
simulation of a basic mechanosynthetic operation - the
abstraction of a specified hydrogen atom from a diamond
surface using a hydrogen abstraction tool. He also
referred to his next area of focus, metal/hydrocarbon
Video and audio recordings of the entire proceedings are
available. They can be ordered directly from the production
company, Sound Photosynthesis,
P.O. Box 2111, Mill Valley, CA 94942-2111. Call: (415) 383-6712.
Audio tapes are $10 per lecture + tax and mailing costs of $2 per
three tapes. Tax is 7.25% for CA residents.
Videotapes are $35 plus tax and shipping per two-hour tape. The
lectures are arranged sequentially on tape according to the
conference program. Tax is as above and shipping is $3 per
A single "conference highlights" compilation videotape
is available for the the same price as the other videotapes.
Please email any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Materials and Process Simulation Center
USC Molecular Robotics
Institute for Molecular
Key Corporate Sponsor
Major Corporate Sponsors
Supporting Corporate Sponsors
Loral Systems Manufacturing Company
Niehaus Ryan Haller;
Weil, Gotshal & Manges
in order of appearance
- Ralph Merkle,
Xerox PARC; Conference Chairman, Introduction.
Smalley, Rice University; Nanotechnology at Rice.
A. Goddard III, Caltech; Computational Chemistry
Fraser Stoddart, University of Birmingham, UK;
The Art and Science of Self-Assembling Molecular
- Eric Drexler,
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing; Directions in
Requicha, USC; Molecular Robotics.
David Jeremiah, USN (Ret.), Technology Strategies
and Alliances; Nanotechnology and Global Security.
- Ralph Merkle,
Xerox PARC; Design Considerations for an Assembler.
Colton, NRL; Tip Surface Interactions.
- Charles Musgrave, MIT; Chemical Synthesis of
Brenner, North Carolina State University;
Simulated Engineering of Nanostructures.
- Elizabeth Enayati, Weil Gotshal & Manges;
Intellectual Property Update.
Whitesides, Harvard; Self Assembly and
Handel, UC Berkeley; Protein Design.
Paul Gaber, NRL; Towards the Molecular Machine
Shop - Spatially Controlled Enzymatic Modification of
- Neil Jacobstein, Teknowledge and IMM;
Entrepreneuring in Molecular Manufacturing: Lessons from
the Computer Industry.
- Paul E. Sheehan, Harvard; Nanomachining,
Manipulation and Fabrication by Force Microscopy.
- Geoff Leach,
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology; Advances in
- Rod Ruoff, Molecular Physics Lab, SRI;
Experimental Study of the Mechanical Properties of
Nanotubes and Nanorods.
Saini, NASA Ames; High Performance Parallel
- Tom McKendree, Univ. of Southern California;
Implications of Molecular Nanotechnology Technical
Performance Parameters on Previously Defined Space System
L. Gillett, University of Nevada; Near-Term
Nanotechology: Nanotechnology, Pollution Control and
- David C. Turner, NRL; Patterned Microtubule
Assemblies for Kinesin-Based Transport.
S. Weiss, Penn State University; Nanometer-Scale
Features and Properties in Self-Assembled Systems.
- Tanya C. Sienko, National Institute of Science and
Technology Policy, Japan; The Track of Japanese
Nanotechnology Efforts: Present, Players, and
From Foresight Update 23, originally
published 30 November 1995.