ASU appoints Yan as director of Center for Molecular Design and Biomimicry

Professor Hao Yan

ASU professor Hao Yan has been appointed as leader of a new effort to advance 21st century discoveries that will have a major impact on the fields of biomedicine, energy research and bioelectronics, called the Center for Molecular Design and Biomimicry.

“With the formation of the first ASU center entirely devoted to biomimicry, Hao Yan’s considerable leadership and expertise will serve as a major catalyst in developing a world-class research initiative that seeks to better understand nature’s design rules and reimagine, reinterpret and rebuild them in a countless number of ingenious ways in order to make our lives better,” said ASU President Michael Crow.

“Starting as an ASU assistant professor just a decade ago, Hao Yan has had a meteoric rise through the academic ranks of ASU and thrived in the multi-disciplinary atmosphere of the Biodesign Institute,” said Raymond DuBois,  executive director of the Biodesign Institute. “With his impressive body of work, extraordinary talents of the research team he has assembled and the breakneck speed of their discoveries and achievements, he has had a profound impact on nanotechnology. Now, with the expansion of Hao Yan’s research in the establishment of this new center, and the recruitment of more top-notch talent, we will significantly broaden the scope and influence of his research.”

The new center becomes the 12th research center at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and is emblematic of the institute’s mission of scientists tackling complex societal issues by creating “bio-inspired” solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges in the areas of biomedicine and health outcomes, sustainability and national security.

“Now, with this center, there is a golden opportunity to expand ASU’s research in molecular design and biomimicry,” said Yan, who holds the inaugural Milton Glick Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “I am thankful to President Crow and ASU’s leadership for the opportunity to implement the vision of this new center and develop a world-class biomimicry effort to benefit ASU, the state and ultimately society.”

Imitation of life

In nature’s role as Earth’s master architect, an almost 4 billion-year trial-and-error process has refined all of our planet’s living organisms, functions and materials. Scientists have long looked at nature as inspiration for answers to both complex and simple problems throughout our existence, from Leonardo Da Vinci creating elaborate sketches of flying machines by studying birds in flight to more recent attempts to understand the properties of spiders’ silk to build materials as strong as Kevlar. The field of biomimicry has given rise to new technologies created from biologically-inspired engineering, ranging from nano-scale to macro-scale outcomes.

To date, Yan’s research approach has focused on using DNA, an essential building block of all life forms, as the architectural underpinnings of a biomimicry approach to advanced nanotechnology with the ultimate goal of building a suite of dynamic nanoscale devices.

Yan is a well-recognized leader in his field, known as structural DNA nanotechnology, or DNA origami, that can fold and self-assemble DNA into a broad range of technological applications important for human health and bio-electronic sensing devices. In addition to his research team’s scientific achievements that have graced the covers of leading research journals such as Science and Nature, honors for Yan include a $6.5 million Department of Defense MURI award; an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (2008-10); National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2006-2011); Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Award (2007-2010); and the Arizona Technology Enterprise Innovator of Tomorrow Award (2006).

Yan’s inspiration behind the new biomimicry center is to move beyond DNA nanotechnology and develop innovative technologies that may spark a ‘bottom up’ nanotechnology industry to develop novel solutions in medicine, energy and electronics. Such a field could spawn the growth of entirely new 21st century industries.

“I have always been very interested in designer architecture,” said Yan. “Every architect needs a set of design rules. In nanotechnology, we need a set of rules that will allow anyone in the field to be able to design an engineered biochemical pathway using a bottom-up approach, where we use the biochemical building blocks of a cell as our building blocks to make new discoveries.” 

From bio-inspiration to innovation

Yan’s research team has built a variety of 2-D and 3-D structures at a scale 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, and now, he wants to push their efforts to build even smaller, and design at the scale of individual atoms, molecules and chemical bonds, which he has dubbed “Angstrom level control.”

Support for the establishment of the center includes federal funding and funds from ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. As the center grows and matures, large collaborative grants with other universities and industrial partnerships will serve to accelerate discovery.

Major Center for Molecular Design and Biomimicry research thrusts include developing faculty labs devoted to all aspects of the biomimetic innovation cycle, including:

• Design – employing computational methods to design, model and predict molecular behavior

• Synthesis – making the building blocks and molecular “Lego” sets

• Assembly – assembling building blocks into structures

• Programming – thinking of biomimetic systems like the transistors, circuits and logic found in microprocessors and computer hardware

• Biomimetic materials and systems engineering – integrating biomimetic materials with man-made systems to optimize functionality

“Our initiative will ultimately distinguish itself significantly from the majority of other biomimicry efforts around the world, where scientists develop biomimetic materials by identifying, adapting and modifying existing biological components for subsequent integration with man-made materials,” said Yan. “Our vision is to design intelligent materials and processes, and a suite of smart molecules that can self-assemble into materials or function in biological networks to deliver drugs, control chemical reactions or build molecular scale electronics, as well as for tissue engineering, biosensors and renewable fuels."