Cow Brain Protein May Hold Alternative Energy Promise

April 20, 2010 by Julie Karceski, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Sarah Heilshorn in her lab on the Stanford campus. (Photo by Julie Karceski.)

( -- Of all the ideas that hold promise in alternative energy, cow brains are an odd candidate. They do not fit into the list of usual plant-based subjects, such as corn or switch grass. But cow brains contain an abundance of clathrin, an important protein in cellular biology, regenerative medicine and perhaps even alternative energy.

Dr. Sarah Heilshorn of the Stanford Institute of Materials and Energy Science, a joint SLAC and Stanford venture, is interested in investigating the capabilities of this nifty protein in collaboration with SIMES colleagues Nick Melosh, Andy Spakowitz and Seb Doniach. The scientists are curious how clathrin might be used to form nanostructured inorganic materials for applications in batteries and . This protein can essentially be used as a skeletal template for the growth of inorganic materials into precise structures. Once scientists assemble the clathrin protein into the proper structures, they can attach other atoms and molecules, much like adding windows and walls to the frame of a house.

Heilshorn and her team are interested in the fundamental questions of how these proteins assemble, with the goal of beginning to tap into biology's secrets for creating complex molecules. Cells have a much better knack for building tiny structures than humans do. For example, viruses have been used quite a bit as a template for building inorganic materials such as electrodes for batteries. Heilshorn and her colleagues were interested in finding more biological templates, for a wider range of uses.

Despite its important role in physiology, clathrin's potential as a template only emerged very recently. Scientists noted that clathrin could form structures outside its natural environment back in the 1980s, though it was merely thought of as curious but not particularly useful.

"When I saw the beautiful structures that clathrin could form, I started to think maybe it could be a really nice template," Heilshorn said.

Clathrin exists in every cell in the human body, as an important gate-keeper. The protein is shaped like a tripod: three spindly legs joined together at one hub. Clathrin molecules easily combine with each other, forming a honeycomb-like lattice on the inner surface of cells. When the right molecules attach themselves to clathrin, the lattice structure buckles into the cell, forming a pouch. This pouch pinches off the cell membrane, delivering its molecular cargo to the cell's interior.

Clathrin's role in cell transport is a complicated biochemical process, relying on just the right triggers. But surprisingly, it is not that difficult to get clathrin to form structures outside of the cell. First, scientists extract clathrin from tissue, such as cow brain. With adjustments to the pH, clathrin concentration and salt concentration, clathrin will assemble itself into a useful skeletal structure. In a test tube, it can form cubes, spheres, barrels and tetrahedra, among other shapes.

"Nature has evolved all these great ways to build inorganic materials with amazing control over shape and structure," Heilshorn said. Even more, these biological structures are created at room temperature and pressure. Production of synthetic materials typically relies on harsh chemicals, very high temperatures and pressures.

These clathrin structures provide a skeleton onto which scientists can add inorganic atoms and molecules, creating materials such as catalysts and . Since the clathrin protein has a very precise pattern of positive and negative charges decorating its surface, the Heilshorn group can engineer strategies to bond various inorganic molecules at specific locations on the template surface. So far, the group has successfully incorporated gold and titanium dioxide, also known as "titania." In the future, they will also look to use platinum and cobalt oxide.

Such materials, assembled on a nanoscopic scale, could make excellent batteries and solar cells. Titania, for example, has photocatalytic properties and can absorb sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. By creating these using clathrin, scientists can tailor their structure toward converting chemicals and sunlight into energy.

"This is something I wouldn't have started if I wasn't part of SIMES," Heilshorn said. Her research group had been interested in cellular and medical applications of protein structures, but because of SIMES' focus on energy, they saw a multidisciplinary opportunity. Now SIMES adds yet another dimension, albeit an unusual one, to the search for cleaner energy.

Explore further: Researchers clarify cellular uptake mechanisms for carbon nanotubes

Related Stories

Breaking down Huntington's disease one protein at a time

February 4, 2008

Hoping to piece together the intricate series of interactions that lead to Huntington's disease, Indiana University Bloomington scientists have determined the shape and structure of a binding site that may prove useful in ...

Scientist Creates Liquid Crystals with High Metal Content

April 3, 2006

Researchers at North Carolina State University have successfully engineered liquid crystals that contain very high concentrations of metals – potentially paving the way toward the creation of “magnetic liquids” and ...

Engineers 'bone' up on biological materials

May 7, 2008

In a recent feature article published in Materials Research Society's Bulletin, Dr Michelle Oyen explores the potential uses of synthetic bone-like material. Michelle suggests that these materials will be too expensive to ...

Recommended for you

Biologists' new peptide could fight many cancers

January 16, 2018

MIT biologists have designed a new peptide that can disrupt a key protein that many types of cancers, including some forms of lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer, need to survive.

Insulating bricks with microscopic bubbles

January 16, 2018

The better a building is insulated, the less heat is lost in winter—and the less energy is needed to achieve a comfortable room temperature. The Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) regularly raises the requirements for ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 29, 2010
Shades sof David Radius Hudson's research into ORMUS or ORME..or 'Orbitally Re-arranged platinuM Elements'.

He found some very, very, very interesting aspects about cow brains, or any brain/nerve matter..and how it was and is seemingly filled with superconductive elements at very low trace levels. point being, as these elements are not tested for in the normal 30 second arc burn spectroscopic method..they are missed.

If one uses the 300 second (neutral gas atmosphere) Soviet Academy of Sciences method...these elements show up. Search for his (mp3) lectures on the internet. Hopefully they are still out there. In those lectures, from over 12 years ago now, at the last, you will find things that are now becoming real..and much more that is still to come. Not that he was a prophet of any kind, no. But he was ahead of his time. If the subject at hand interests you, then look into his lectures.
Apr 30, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet May 02, 2010
Clatrin protein for alternative energy already patented six years ago by others, see USPTO #7,393,924
not rated yet May 06, 2010
Unlike Stanford, ExQor Technologies does not use cow brains, which have their own processing issues, e.g., the possibility of their containing prion diseases like "Mad Cow". Another big reason for ExQor not using cow brains is our bio-engineered Clathrin is also designed to be used in our patented biomedical applications for people--Cow tissue is definitely out.
not rated yet Jun 14, 2010
Two articles discussing a nanolaser made out of Clathrin protein recently appeared,


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.