Researchers at Rice University and Texas A&M have discovered a way to pattern active proteins into bio-friendly fibers. The "eureka" moment came about because somebody forgot to clean up the lab one night.
The new work from the Rice lab of biochemist Kathleen Matthews, in collaboration with former Rice faculty fellow and current Texas A&M assistant professor Sarah Bondos, simplifies the process of making materials with fully functional proteins. Such materials could find extensive use as chemical catalysts and biosensors and in tissue engineering, for starters.
Their paper in today's online edition of Advanced Functional Materials details a method to combine proteins with a transcription factor derived from fruit flies and then draw it into fine, strong strands that can be woven into any configuration.
Bondos and Matthews led the team that included primary author Zhao Huang and research technician Taha Salim, both of Rice, and research assistants Autumn Brawley and Jan Patterson, both of Texas A&M.
The research had its genesis while Bondos was in Matthews' Rice lab studying Ultrabithorax (Ubx), a recombinant transcription factor protein found in Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly). This protein regulates the development of wings and legs.
"It's biodegradable, nontoxic and made of naturally occurring proteins -- though we have no reason to believe that fruit flies ever produce enough of these proteins to actually make fibers," Bondos said.
It was a surprise, then, to find that Ubx self-assembles into a film under relatively mild conditions.
"I was cleaning up in the lab one morning and I noticed what appeared to be a drop of water suspended in midair beneath a piece of equipment I was using the previous night," Bondos recalled.
It turned out the droplet was water encased in a sac of Ubx film. The sac was hanging by a Ubx fiber so thin that it was more difficult to see than
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