The building blocks of nanotechnology are materials with orderly, often repeating patterns on the scale of a billionth of a meter. It’s nearly impossible for researchers to directly create large arrays of these materials with such stunning precision, so scientists seek out systems that can spontaneously arrange themselves. Many biological materials, including viruses in solution, have this promising “self-assembly” quality.

Millions of viruses in solution can line up and stack themselves into layers, creating a material that flows like a liquid but maintains an internal pattern. By changing the solution’s concentration or applying a magnetic field, scientists can force new patterns and create different liquid crystal structures.