"It clued us in that this was making materials," said Matthews, Rice's Stewart Memorial Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and former dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences.
The chance discovery prompted a 2009 paper in the journal Biomacromolecules about the material they dubbed "ultrax," a superstrong and highly elastic natural fiber.
"We found that if you put a little drop of this protein solution on a slide, the Ubx forms a film. And if you touch a needle to that film, you can draw a fiber," Matthews said. "Then we asked, What if we could incorporate other functions into these materials? Can we make chimeras?" The answer was yes, though it took ingenuity to prove.
Chimeras in the biological world contain genetically distinct cells from two or more sources. In Greek mythology, chimeras are beings with parts from multiple animals; a pig with wings, for instance, would qualify. But real chimeras are usually more subtle. On the molecular level, chimeras are proteins that are fused into a single polypeptide and can be purified as a single molecular entity.
As a proof of principle, the team used gene-fusion techniques to create chimeras by combining Ubx with fluorescent and luminescent proteins to see if they remained functional. They did. The combined materials still formed a film on water. Drawn into fibers and put under a microscope, Ubx combined with enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) kept its bright green color. Ubx-mCherry was bright red, the brown protein myoglobin (from sperm whales) was brown, and luciferase glowed.
Huang was able to make patterns with strands generated by the chimeras by twisting red and green fluorescent proteins into candy cane-like tubes, or lacing them on a frame. "This patterning technique is pretty unique and very simple," said Huang, who recently defended his thesis on the subject. He said making solid materials with fu
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