Transformable nanophotonic surfaces: fusing synthetic biology with nano-engineering to create physically reconfigurable optical materials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering


Nanophotonics is a term used to describe the interaction of light with objects (usually metals) that have nanometer scale dimensions. Harnessing these interactions has enabled an unprecedented degree of optical control at these sub-microscopic levels, opening the door to a raft of new devices, materials and surfaces based on the unique physics unlocked by the engineering and organisation of nanophotonic structures. However, as we are reaching the limit of what traditional fabrication techniques can achieve, there is the need to develop new techniques for the assembly nanophotonic particles if we are to maintain our current rapid progress in this area and develop the smart optical surfaces and devices of the future. The aim of this project, based at The University of Glasgow's School of Engineering, is to introduce a new fabrication and manipulation tool-set to the field of nanophotonics; a tool-set based on synthetic-biology which has the capability to not only assemble nanophotonic surfaces using biological interactions, but to have those surfaces remain biologically active such that they can reconfigure their nanoscale geometries in response to different molecular cues.
This technology will be made possible by fusing traditional 'top-down' lithography with a reconfigurable 'bottom-up' self-assembly method based on interaction of DNA nanopatterns with site-specific recombination enzymes. By selectively patterning a nanophotonic surface with DNA we will be able to manipulate the placement of individual metallic nanoparticles within that array through the action of said enzymes; creating photonic interactions that alter the optical properties and output of that surface. The addition of particular synthetic biology machinery and tools will allow us to remove, swap or relocate these nanoparticles to other specifically engineered points on the surface, eliciting a new optical response. Representing a new platform technology, the augmentation of nanophotonic surfaces with synthetic biology to will open up new avenues of materials research and device generation based on reconfigurable nano-architectures.

Planned Impact

As a platform technology that enables transformable nano-structured systems, there are several private sector companies and public sector institutions which would benefit from the medium and long-term impact of this research. Although the technology is at a very early stage there is scope in the next 5 years for this technology to positively impact the UK economy, public sector (defense), and quality of life, by benefitting areas such as:

Nanophotonic metamaterial manufacture - Transformable nanophotonic materials, devices and coatings have the potential to revolutionise a number of commercially relevant areas while also generating new commercial avenues. Such a technology would have impact on optical component companies as it provides a route for producing 2D nanostructured optical devices as an alternative to bulk optics materials (Laser 2000, Comar Optics, Edmund Optics), microchip companies interested in advanced optical materials for developing photonic computing platforms (ARM Holdings), as well as those working in the private and public defense sectors where it could be applied to optical and IR cloaking technologies as a new transformable metamaterial coating (Thales, BAE, Qinetiq, MoD Defense Science and Technology Laboratory).

Biosensors/Diagnostics - These new surfaces respond both physically and optically to individual biological binding events and interactions. Through careful design of both the surfaces and the DNA sequences, there is the possibility to use these surfaces as biosensors that produce far-field optical signals, visible to the naked eye, that would report upon biological events at extreme sensitivities (single molecule being possible using cheap dark field microscopy equipment). As a result, the toolset and surfaces demonstrated by this project have the potential to impact the biosensor and point-of-care diagnostic markets (Omega Diagnostics, EKF Diagnostics, Roche Diagnostics, Alere, NHS Research). This will create impact that will be felt not only by those industries, but will also generate societal impact by enabling a new generation of highly sensitive home-testing kits and point-of-care diagnostics tools that lower the burden on the NHS and its sample testing laboratories.

General nanofabrication - As an industry, nanofabrication is fast approaching the limit of what is possible using top-down engineering alone. It has been identified that bottom-up techniques such as molecular assembly may hold the key to further advancement of photonic and electronic nanoscale devices. The research described in this proposal has the potential to significantly impact the field of nanofabrication by providing a route toward large-scale, molecularly defined architectures that are compatible with current techniques, can add functionality to existing systems, and can create entirely new material types that physically and functionally transform in response to biological events. This transformative property has the potential to change how nanofabrication is approached, as it would mark the first time that a nanostructured system (be it electronic, photonic, or purely topographical), was not constrained by its initial design, but could be tailored to change its properties due to biomolecular intervention. As such, this technology would benefit commercial entities interested in production of nanostructures materials (ARM Holdings, Intel, STMicroelectronics, Agar, 3M).


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Description As a 12 month First Grant, the key goal for this grant was to establish a methodological platform from which my research group could build further RCUK grant applications. During this grant we focused on 2 streams of work: developing a new reversible method of attaching and detaching DNA sequences from surfaces (published); and developing a self-assembling DNA-Origami platform for programmable nano-engineering (a DNA-origami grid onto which we can program the attachment of metallic nanoparticles). We now intend to combine these new findings in order to create self-assembling optical nano-devices. Furthermore, the reversible chemistries we have developed will also be used to reconfigure the optical nanoparticles attached to the DNA-Origami grid. The result will be new types of dynamic optical devices/surfaces controlled by biomolecular and chemical switches.
Exploitation Route The reversible DNA binding that we have published will very likely be carried forward by the community (due to its relative simplicity and effectiveness).
We have since secured a 2 BBSRC grants and a Leverhulme Trust grant based on these principles (and the papers that arose from the grant).
Another paper based on this topic is in preparation for a 2020 submission.
Sectors Chemicals,Electronics,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Other

Description The publication (ACSNano) on plasmonic colour-switching surfaces that formed one part of this grant's research activities was picked up by the mainstream media. The paper received widespread TV, Radio, Magazine and Newspaper coverage, as well as being featured in industry journals and mainstream tech and news websites. A selection of the coverage can be found here:
First Year Of Impact 2017
Impact Types Cultural

Description DNA-directed construction of three-dimensional photosynthetic assemblies
Amount £615,649 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/N016734/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 06/2020
Title High density optical storage using plasmonic nano pixels as dual-state data-bits 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Title Reversible DNA Micro-patterning Using the Fluorous Effect 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes