Scientists coax proteins to form synthetic structures with method that mimics nature

January 14, 2019, University of Texas at Austin
As a proof of concept, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin built tiny structures that resemble two doughnuts stacked on top of each other by applying electrical charges to specific spots on naturally occurring proteins. Credit: University of Texas at Austin

Scientists have long dreamed of creating synthetic structures out of the same raw material that nature uses in living systems—proteins—believing such an advance would allow for the development of transformative nanomachines, for example, molecular cages that precisely deliver chemotherapy drugs to tumors or photosynthetic systems for harvesting energy from light. Now a team of biologists from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan have invented a way to build synthetic structures from proteins, and just as in nature, the method is simple and could be used for a variety of purposes.

"We think we can use these structures kind of like Legos to build bigger things," said David Taylor, assistant professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-corresponding author on a new paper published today in the journal Nature Chemistry. "We also know some of the rules for modifying the basic recipe to make different types of building blocks."

As a , the team built tiny structures that resemble two doughnuts stacked on top of each other by applying electrical charges to specific spots on naturally occurring proteins. Previous researchers have managed to create from proteins but only after painstakingly affixing something onto proteins or creating new proteins from scratch, making earlier methods complicated, time-intensive and limiting. By contrast, the new method, dubbed "SUpercharged PRotein Assembly (SuPrA)," mimics the way that proteins in living organisms work as they make the molecular machines that carry out the different functions of life: The structures in the new method are self-assembling and flexible.

"Our approach takes a that doesn't normally assemble, and gives it many potential sites where it might be able to, allowing it to 'choose' which fits the rest of its geometry and chemistry best," said Anna Simon, a postdoctoral researcher in UT Austin's Department of Molecular Biosciences and co-first author of the paper. "This is important because it gives us a way to semi-direct proteins to organize into larger structures without having to understand beforehand exactly how they will fit together."

The original concept for this new method was developed by Andy Ellington, associate director of UT Austin's Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology, also a professor of molecular biosciences and the co-corresponding author on the study.

To demonstrate their concept, the researchers started with , a standard protein used as a glowing tag in all sorts of biological experiments. They created two slightly different versions, using a never-before-attempted method: adding electrical charges to entice the protein to form discrete, symmetrical structures. One version had positive charges added at certain spots, and it was mixed in a solution with a second version that had negative charges at certain spots. The team found each version self-assembled into myriad tiny structures, or macromolecular complexes, each with the same number and arrangement of proteins.

Because this method allows structures to be built from naturally occurring proteins, the researchers say it offers science a new tool that's scalable, affordable and sustainable.

"It's like how people use 3-D printers to make things out of materials they wouldn't have used in the past," Taylor said. "This new method gives us another option for materials. These materials are easily obtainable, inexpensive and not harmful to the environment."

Explore further: Scientists design new responsive porous material inspired by proteins

More information: Anna J. Simon et al, Supercharging enables organized assembly of synthetic biomolecules, Nature Chemistry (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41557-018-0196-3

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EyeNStein
not rated yet Jan 14, 2019
Either a brilliant nano-building breakthrough; or Drexler's "grey goo" generator

https://en.wikipe...Grey_goo
flashgordon
not rated yet Jan 14, 2019
Either a brilliant nano-building breakthrough; or Drexler's "grey goo" generator

https://en.wikipe...Grey_goo


Grey goo is daimondoid self replicators - self replicators made of materials nature can't break down.
flashgordon
not rated yet Jan 14, 2019
Abuse of nanotech is still more a problem than accidents; but, no one wants to go threre!
flashgordon
not rated yet Jan 14, 2019
Either a brilliant nano-building breakthrough; or Drexler's "grey goo" generator

https://en.wikipe...Grey_goo


there's a lot of tools in place that can work with this and make protein nanotech happen now - there's the Washington States Rosetta software, and some electromagnetic powered nano-motors.
Old_C_Code
not rated yet Jan 15, 2019
Natural proteins do such advanced things by folding into complex objects. I wouldn't be surprise if they concluded it took 13 billion years to evolve, or trillions of years (or near infinity) and our universe's time scale is off.
humy
not rated yet Jan 15, 2019
"Grey goo" is just pure ignorant nonsense and always will be.
Such paranoia against nano-technology steps from pure ignorance of it and basic scientific facts, such as the fact that nature, more specifically cellular biology, has evolved its own 'nano-technology' (or a close analogy to it if you prefer being pedantic) for billions of years and yet the world has never come to an end from that!
Examples of this are the microtubules in living cells and the molecular machinery that drives cilia that looks suspiciously like artificial machines when viewed in diagrams so we can definitely say they are NATURE'S nano machines!
Please stop believing this pure nonsense that something made arbitrarily small must magically necessarily makes it dangerous!
NeMaTo
not rated yet Jan 15, 2019
cellular biology, has evolved its own 'nano-technology'... for billions of years and yet the world has never come to an end from that!


Just because X has been done before does not make it safe, especially if X once killed nearly everything.

The world has come very close to ending due to natural evolution... e.g., the great oxygenation event. (Of course it didn't end the planet, but did kill off most of it's species).
humy
not rated yet Jan 16, 2019
cellular biology, has evolved its own 'nano-technology'... for billions of years and yet the world has never come to an end from that!


Just because X has been done before does not make it safe,

Agreed. But in this case it indicates it is safe. Evolution failed to make a domesday 'gray goo' despite BILLIONS of years doing its worst thus indicating 'gray goo' is impossible for that begs the question of WHY it has failed to do this despite BILLIONS of years?

The world has come very close to ending due to natural evolution... e.g., the great oxygenation event.

yes, as a result of evolution, not nano-technology (or nature's equivalent)

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