Molecular self-assembly

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File:Hydrogen-bonded Self-assembly AngewChemIntEd 1998 v37 p75.jpg
An example of a molecular self-assembly through hydrogen bonds reported by Meijer and coworkers in Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 1998, 37, p 75-78.

Molecular self-assembly is the assembly of molecules without guidance or management from an outside source.There are two types of self-assembly, intramolecular self-assembly and intermolecular self-assembly. Most often the term molecular self-assembly refers to intermolecular self-assembly, while the intramolecular analog is more commonly called folding.

Supramolecular Systems

Molecular self-assembly is a key concept in supramolecular chemistry since assembly of the molecules is directed through noncovalent interactions, such as hydrogen bonding, metal coordination, hydrophobic forces, van der Waals forces, π-π interactions, and/or electrostatic effects. Simple examples include the formation of a micelle or a Langmuir monolayer by surfactant molecules in solution. More advanced examples of supramolecular assemblies demonstrate that a variety of different shapes and sizes can be obtained using molecular self-assembly.

Biological Systems

Molecular self-assembly is crucial to the function of cells. It is exhibited in the self-assembly of lipids to form the membrane, the formation of double helical DNA through hydrogen bonding of the individual strands, and the assembly of proteins to form quaternary structures. Molecular self-assembly of incorrectly folded proteins into insoluble amyloid fibers is responsible for infectious prion-related neurodegenerative diseases.


The DNA structure at left (schematic shown) will self-assemble into the structure visualized by atomic force microscopy at right. Image from Strong, 2004. [1]

Molecular self-assembly is an important aspect of bottom-up approaches to nanotechnology. Using molecular self-assembly the final (desired) structure is programmed in the shape and functional groups of the molecules. Self-assembly is referred to as a 'bottom-up' manufacturing technique in contrast to a 'top-down' technique such as lithography where the desired final structure is carved from a larger block of matter. In the speculative vision of molecular nanotechnology, microchips of the future might be made by molecular self-assembly. An advantage to constructing nanostructure using molecular self-assembly for biological materials is that they will degrade back into individual molecules that can be broken down by the body.

DNA nanotechnology

DNA nanotechnology is an area of current research that uses the bottom-up, self-assebly approach for nanotechnological goals. DNA nanotechnology uses the unique molecular recognition properties of DNA and other nucleic acids to create self-assembing branched DNA complexes with useful properties. DNA is thus used as a structural material rather than as a carrier of biological information, to make sturctures such as two-dimensional periodic lattices (both tile-based as well as using the "DNA origami" method) and three-dimensional structures in the shapes of polyhedra. These DNA structures have also been used to template the assembly of other molecules such as gold nanoparticles and streptavidin proteins.


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