A few years ago, Morse and his research group began investigating how nature builds materials from silicon. Silicon is particularly interesting to Morse, because it is considered by many to be the most important element on the planet technologically. Silicon chips are fundamental components of computers and telecommunications devices. In combination with oxygen, silicon forms fiber optics and drives other high-tech applications.
Morse explained that his research group discovered that the center of the sponge's fine glass needles contains a filament of protein that controls the synthesis of the needles. By cloning and sequencing the DNA of the gene that codes for this protein, they found that the protein is an enzyme that acts as a catalyst –?a surprising discovery. Never before had a protein been found to serve as a catalyst to promote chemical reactions to form the glass or a rock-like material of a biomineral. From that discovery, the researchers learned that this enzyme actively promotes the formation of the glass while simultaneously serving as a template to guide the shape of the growing mineral (glass) that it produces.
These discoveries are significant because they represent a low temperature, biotechnological, catalytic route to the nanostructural fabrication of valuable materials. Nature produces silica on a scale of gigatons –?thousands of millions of tons –?thousands-fold more than man can produce, said Morse. "This biosynthesis is remarkable because this nanoscale precision can't be duplicated by man."
Besides this remarkable precision, nature manages to produce silica at a low temperature, in an environmentally friendly way without the use of caustic chemicals, whereas man must use very high temperatures, high vacuums, and dangerous chemicals requiring costly remediation.
Although the reported research marks an important step forward, Morse
Source:University of California - Santa Barbara