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Monday 17 October 2011

Definition: Self-assembly is the process by which molecules adopt a defined arrangement without guidance or management from an outside source.

There are two types of self-assembly:
- intramolecular self-assembly
- intermolecular self-assembly.

Most often the term molecular self-assembly refers to intermolecular self-assembly, while the intramolecular analog is more commonly called folding.

Molecular self-assembly is a key concept in supramolecular chemistry since assembly of the molecules is directed through noncovalent interactions (e.g., hydrogen bonding, metal coordination, hydrophobic forces, van der Waals forces, π-π interactions, and/or electrostatic) as well as electromagnetic interactions.

Common examples include the formation of micelles, vesicles, liquid crystal phases, and Langmuir monolayers by surfactant molecules.

Further examples of supramolecular assemblies demonstrate that a variety of different shapes and sizes can be obtained using molecular self-assembly.

Molecular self-assembly has allowed the construction of challenging molecular topologies.

An example are Borromean rings, interlocking rings wherein removal of one ring unlocks each of the other rings. DNA has been used to prepare a molecular analog of Borromean rings. More recently, a similar structure has been prepared using non-biological building blocks.

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.


Self-assembly is the most common term in use in the modern scientific community to describe the spontaneous aggregation of particles (atoms, molecules, colloids, micelles, etc.) without the influence of any external forces.

Large groups of such particles are known to assemble themselves into thermodynamically stable, structurally well-defined arrays, quite reminiscent of one of the 7 crystal systems found in metallurgy and mineralogy (e.g. face-centered cubic, body-centered cubic, etc.).

The fundamental difference in equilibrium structure is in the spatial scale of the unit cell (or lattice parameter) in each particular case.

Molecular self-assembly is found widely in biological systems and provides the basis of a wide variety of complex biological structures. This includes an emerging class of mechanically superior biomaterials based on microstructural features and designs found in nature.

Thus, self-assembly is also emerging as a new strategy in chemical synthesis and nanotechnology.

Molecular crystals, liquid crystals, colloids, micelles, emulsions, phase-separated polymers, thin films and self-assembled monolayers all represent examples of the types of highly ordered structures which are obtained using these techniques.

The distinguishing feature of these methods is self-organization.


Molecular self-assembly of incorrectly folded proteins into insoluble amyloid fibers is responsible for infectious prion-related neurodegenerative diseases.

See also

- supramolecular systems
- biological systems
- nanotechnology
- two-dimensional monolayers
- structural hierarchy


- Self-assembled nanostructures can be selectively controlled.