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NIM nanosystems initiative munich

Thursday, 31 March, 2011

Green light for nanoelectronics

Single molecules form optical switch

The technology of nanophotonics studies and manipulates the behavior of light within the nanometre scale. One of the scientists’ visions is that light could take over the role of electric current in future by building up optical circuits. This kind of circuit requires only minimal space and has the potential to widely exceed the capability and operating speed of electric circuits. Now scientists from the Cluster of Excellence “Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM)” have used a new model to demonstrate how to manipulate the direction of propagation of light or light energy at the level of single molecules. The biophysicists around Professor Philip Tinnefeld (until fall 2010 at LMU Munich, now at TU Braunschweig) placed a cascade of four different fluorescent dye molecules on a platform of DNA. By means of a so-called "jumping dye" they can control the direction of the light path and hence of energy transfer. With their new single-molecule four-colour technique, the scientists made the success of the strategy clearly visible (JACS 2011).

To control light on the nano scale, scientists require new kinds of optical devices to function as wires and switches. The energy transfer between single dye molecules, for instance, could function as a sort of wire. There is already an example in nature for such a transfer mode: during the process of photosynthesis, light energy is transported between single molecules within the light harvesting complexes. Philip Tinnefeld and his team applied this mechanism to conduct light from one fluorescent dye molecule to another. The principle is called FRET for Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer. For their light control experiments the biophysicists worked with dye molecules with absorption maxima respectively in the blue, green, red and infrared wavelength ranges.

Such an interaction between molecules – for example in artificial optical switches – is only feasible if they are located no more than five nanometers apart. To enable this, the scientists utilized a tiny pinboard built from the biomolecule DNA. They first connected each dye molecule to a short articificial DNA strand. These loaded segments, together with about 200 more short DNA strands, act like staples, supporting one single very long DNA strand to fold into a two- or even three-dimensional structure. This structure is pre-defined in such a way that, after the folding, the dye molecules face outward from this DNA pinboard or ”DNA carpet” in optimal position with respect to each other. The DNA pinboard typically has a size of less than 100 nm x 100 nm. The customized use of this molecular self-organization and self-folding technique is called ”DNA origami”, based on the Japanese art of folding paper.

In the experiment, the biophysicists first excite the blue ”input dye” using the corresponding light wavelength. The excited molecule in turn transfers parts of the excitation energy in the form of fluorescent radiation via FRET to another adjacent dye molecule. Now we come to the key aspect of the DNA pinboard system: the green ”jumping dye”. For, depending on its position, this molecule directs the light energy either towards the red or towards the infrared output dye. The color of the output signal shows which route was selected.

With their novel approach Philip Tinnefeld’s team of scientists has for the first time combined the use of DNA as supporting material with single-molecule four-color spectroscopy. This combination makes it possible to visually represent the switching of energy-transfer pathways. The DNA origami constructs provide numerous binding sites for other molecules, and therefore can be regarded as a molecular pinboard or ”nano-board”.

The four-color spectroscopy technique with alternating laser excitation can also provide detailed information on objects at the nanoscale, both in terms of their structure and their interactions. In addition, the novel technique is well suited for high-sensitivity analyses. For this purpose the scientists can adapt the system so that it can use light signals to detect the binding of a single molecule of a requested substance.



 Single-Molecule Four-Color FRET Visualizes Energy-Transfer Paths on DNA Origami. Ingo H. Stein, Christian Steinhauer and Philip Tinnefeld. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2011, 133, 4193–4195.


Prof. Philip Tinnefeld

Institut für Physikalische und Theoretische Chemie
Technische Universität Braunschweig
Hans-Sommer-Strasse 10
38106 Braunschweig
Tel: 0531 391 5330

Ingo Stein

Institut für Angewandte Physik / Biophysik
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU)
Amalienstraße 54
80799 München
Tel: 089 2180 1438

Review in Nature Chemistry

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