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Penn researchers help nanoscale engineers choose self-assembling proteins
Date:5/31/2011

PHILADELPHIA Engineering structures on the smallest possible scales using molecules and individual atoms as building blocks is both physically and conceptually challenging. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has now developed a method of computationally selecting the best of these blocks, drawing inspiration from the similar behavior of proteins in making biological structures.

The team was led by postdoctoral fellow Gevorg Grigoryan and professor William DeGrado of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, as well as graduate student Yong Ho Kim of the Department of Chemistry in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences. Their colleagues included members of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in SAS.

Their research was published in the journal Science today.

The team set out to design proteins that could wrap around single-walled carbon nanotubes. Consisting of a cylindrical pattern of carbon atoms tens of thousands of times thinner than a human hair, nanotubes are enticing to nanoengineers as they are extraordinarily strong and could be useful as platform for other nano-structures.

"We wanted to achieve a specific geometric pattern of the atoms that these proteins are composed of on the surface of the nanotube," Grigoryan said. "If you know the underlying atomic lattice, it means that you know how to further build around it, how to attach things to it. It's like scaffolding for future building."

The hurdle in making such scaffolds isn't a lack of information, but a surfeit of it: researchers have compiled databases that list hundreds of thousands of actual and potential protein structures in atomic detail. Picking the building materials for a particular structure from this vast array and assuring that they self-assemble into the desired shape was beyond the abilities of powerful computers, much less humans.

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Contact: Evan Lerner
elerner@upenn.edu
215-573-6604
University of Pennsylvania
Source:Eurekalert

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