Prof. Nate Oldenhuis Wins NSF CAREER Award

Nate Oldenhuis

Congratulations to UNH Assistant Professor of Chemistry Nate Oldenhuis on his National Science Foundation CAREER Award! His research project is entitled "Sustainable DNA Hydrogel Production via Bioreactor-Derived Plasmid DNA". Read on for a description of the project. 

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, exhibits unique properties extending beyond its central role as genetic information, making it a versatile tool for creating sensors, logic gates, computers, and intricate origami-like structures. This collective field of applications, known as DNA nanotechnology, relies on the precise control of DNA sequences to achieve diverse functions, holding significant implications for human health and industry. A substantial challenge facing DNA nanotechnology is the need to scale up DNA production for atypical applications without becoming cost-prohibitive, environmentally harmful, or overly cumbersome. To address this challenge, this project leverages bioreactors, used by pharmaceutical companies for producing nucleic acid vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, to scale up DNA production. By employing microorganisms, akin to how yeast transforms wheat into beer, this cost-effective and scalable approach has the potential to produce DNA in quantities that are hundreds of thousands of times greater than current methods yield. At this scale, the unique properties of DNA beyond its sequence can be harnessed to create materials with novel characteristics. Unlike almost any other molecule, DNA's shape can be controlled and woven into exotic forms to give it enhanced properties, like how a weave pattern can control the strength of a fabric. Furthermore, DNA's interactions with proteins and other molecules offer new opportunities for precise manipulation, allowing the creation of tunable materials. This research, which encompasses the interdisciplinary application of bioreactors, provides two educational opportunities centered around DNA nanotechnology. The 'Science Mash-up' program allows high schoolers to fuse two sciences, such as chemistry and biology, while showcasing the exciting results through live demonstrations. Additionally, a bioreactor boot camp is offered to both undergraduate and graduate students, equipping them with the necessary skills to operate a bioreactor while facilitating interactions with scientists from Lonza's Portsmouth NH facility, local experts in industrial bioreactors. Overall, this research aims to elevate DNA nanotechnology to a broader scale and generate new materials endowed with innovative and controllable structure-properties.