Nanotechnology creates structures that mimic proteins

One broad class of proposals to develop advanced nanotech (productive nanosystems) envisions engineering polymers that mimic proteins and fold into defined three-dimensional structures with enzyme-like activities. A major advance in mimicking protein function has been made by scientists working with peptoids—polymers that resemble proteins except that the polymer backbone has monomer side groups attached to nitrogen atoms rather than to alpha-carbon atoms, as in proteins. From Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (credit “Nanosized Jaws Perform Like Proteins“:

Berkeley Lab scientists have developed a nano-sized synthetic polymer bundle that can fold in half and trap a zinc molecule between its jaws, a first-of-its-kind feat that mimics how proteins conduct life’s vital functions.

The scientists’ success in coaxing protein-like function from a synthetic polymer is an initial step toward developing nanostructures that combine the precision of proteins with the ruggedness of non-natural materials. Although very primitive by nature’s standards, their polymer bundle could lead to highly accurate sensors capable of operating in harsh environments, or disease-targeting pharmaceuticals that last much longer than today’s therapies.

“We’re using nature as our guide to develop functional, stable nanostructures,” said Ron Zuckermann, who is the Facility Director of the Biological Nanostructures Facility in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. Zuckermann developed the foldable polymer bundle with Byoung-Chul Lee and Tammy Chu of the Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, and Ken Dill of the Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and the University of California at San Francisco, where he’s a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry.

“We have a long way to go, but the ultimate goal is to make useful nano-structured materials that can function over a wide range of conditions,” said Zuckermann.

…”Our goal is to take proteins’ catalysis and molecular-recognition capabilities, and add them to a material that is more rugged and less prone to degradation,” said Zuckermann. “Proteins are precisely folded linear polymer chains of amino acids. So we thought, why not make a similar polymer chain by linking together non-natural amino acids?”

Specifically, his research team works with a protein-like chain of polymers called a peptoid. Peptoids are synthetic structures that mimic peptides, which nature uses to form complex proteins. Instead of using peptides to build proteins, however, Zuckermann’s team is striving to use peptoids to build synthetic structures that behave like proteins.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (abstract).

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