According to a press release (25 January 2002), researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology have found a way to attach a wide range of molecules to the surface of a virus, enhancing the virus with the properties of those molecules. The researchers say their technique may find applications in materials science, medicine, and molecular electronics, including the possibility of building circuits of conducting molecules on the surfaces of the viruses and form a component of a molecular-scale computer, or a new type of "nanowire." The work is reported in the 1 February 2002 issue of Angewandte Chemie.
The researchers found a method of putting a chemically reactive cysteine residue (a type of amino acid) on the surface of each of the 60 identical protein modules that make up the viral shell. The shell has an icosahedral shape, which provides 60 equivalent sites for attaching molecules. The researchers report they have been able to attach fluorescent dyes and clusters of gold molecules to the cysteine residues, which could be easily imaged. They also have successfully attached biotin (Vitamin B), sugars, and organic chemicals. The technique can be used to immobilize large molecules on the viral surface — whole proteins even. In addition, the virus particles can self-organize into network arrays in a crystal, which may make it a useful building block for various applications in nanotechnology. "You can, in principle, determine the type of assembly you get by programming the building blocks," says one researcher.
Update: Additional coverage is available in this article from United Press International