Erik Winfree, 30
Computer scientist Erik Winfree embodies the remarkable potential of the spot where biology and engineering meet. For his PhD project, Winfree zeroed in on the natural inclination of corresponding strands of DNA to zip themselves up into a double helix. Could such "self-assembly" reactions be harnessed to carry out basic computational processes? In work that extended existing theories of DNA-based computers, Winfree showed that the reactions should be able to carry out all the operations of a computer, doing anything from crunching prime numbers to playing chess. In Winfree’s world of biological computers, both the information "input" and the "output" come in the form of molecules. As a result, the same methods can be used to assemble nanostructures.
Imagine simple DNA elements prepared ("programmed," ifyou will) to automatically assemble into a complex structure, like a jigsaw puzzle solving itself via chemical reactions. With New York University’s Ned Seeman, Winfree designed a self-assembly reaction to construct a two-dimensional DNA crystal. Winfree sees no reason to stop there. The DNA self-assembly approach could eventually lead to new ways of building more complex materials--even nanometer-sized electronic components--one molecule at a time.
David Baltimore, president of Caltech, where Winfree will join the faculty in 2000, calls Winfree "an unconventional thinker" whose work "will open up entire new areas of inquiry."