Science in Films: Nanotechnology in Ant-Man

In episode #201 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie are joined by Nadrian C. Seeman, Margaret & Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry at NYU, and Ruojie Sha, a Post-Doctorate Senior Research Scientist, also at NYU, to discuss nanotechnology as represented – and misrepresented – in the 2015 Marvel film Ant-Man.

A quotation from biochemist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, about the implausibility of a tiny brain in a man the size of an insect, starts a discussion about fictional “shrink ray” technology. Seeman explains the immutability of the size of an atom, as well as the fact that they can’t be made to be any closer together. What degree of smallness qualifies as “nano” is the next subject, and how the outside world views the work of nanotechnologists. Sha makes the point that all the technologies depicted in Ant-Man are of the optical microscope scale – and therefore too large to be considered “nano.”

Seeman talks about the work he does with synthetic human DNA, as compared to the work of well-known theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, considered by some to be the founder of nanotechnology. Seeman then describes his initial interest in exploring the other uses to which the information within DNA might be put, including defining the structures of fabricated molecules on the nanometer scale and assembling, like Legos, structurally well-defined units into such molecules as the truncated octahedron that Seeman created 20 years earlier.

Next Seeman explains the career trajectory that led him to this work. When the topic of “branch DNA” came up via a person working in a neighboring lab, he was inspired to begin the work that would lead, with a little additional inspiration from M.C. Escher’s woodcut Depth – which depicts three-dimensional flying fish – to his current research on creating 3-D multi-armed molecules.
What role self-replication, or self-fabrication, plays in Seeman’s work comes next, including how he got a small piece of DNA to replicate itself. Whether or not “nanobots” are alive is carefully considered, as well as the “sticky ends” of DNA that enable Seeman to connect molecular structures. How the two “backbones” of a strand of DNA relate to one another – in fact, the “antagonism” between them – is assessed in terms of its importance to the function of the DNA strand overall.

Nano-electronic components are mentioned as a possible application of Seeman’s research, as well as pharmaceutical usages that would allow scientists to look at how a “drug lead” interacts with a receptor within the body, work which bears a lot in common with how Protease inhibitors were discovered to combat the HIV virus.

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