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Shaken, not stirred: Berkeley lab scientists spy molecular maneuvers

Stir this clear liquid in a glass vial and nothing happens. Shake this liquid, and free-floating sheets of protein-like structures emerge, ready to detect molecules or catalyze a reaction. This isn't the latest gadget from James Bond's arsenal -- rather, the latest research from the U. S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) scientists unveiling how slim sheets of protein-like structures self-assemble. This "shaken, not stirred" mechanism provides a way to scale up production of these two-dimensional nanosheets for a wide range of applications, such as platforms for sensing, filtration and templating growth of other nanostructures.

"Our findings tell us how to engineer two-dimensional, biomimetic materials with atomic precision in water," said Ron Zuckermann, Director of the Biological Nanostructures Facility at the Molecular Foundry, a DOE nanoscience user facility at Berkeley Lab. "What's more, we can produce these materials for specific applications, such as a platform for sensing molecules or a membrane for filtration."

Zuckermann, who is also a senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, is a pioneer in the development of peptoids, synthetic polymers that behave like naturally occurring proteins without degrading. His group previously discovered peptoids capable of self-assembling into nanoscale ropes, sheets and jaws, accelerating mineral growth and serving as a platform for detecting misfolded proteins.

In this latest study, the team employed a Langmuir-Blodgett trough a bath of water with Teflon-coated paddles at either end to study how peptoid nanosheets assemble at the surface of the bath, called the air-water interface. By compressing a single layer of peptoid molecules on the surface of water with these paddles, said Babak Sanii, a post-doctoral researcher working with Zuckermann, "we can squeeze this layer to a critical pressure and watch it collapse into a sheet."

"Knowing the mechanism of sheet formation gives us a set of design rules for making these nanomaterials on a much larger scale," added Sanii.

To study how shaking affected sheet formation, the team developed a new device called the SheetRocker to gently rock a vial of peptoids from upright to horizontal and back again. This carefully controlled motion allowed the team to precisely control the process of compression on the air-water interface.

"During shaking, the monolayer of peptoids essentially compresses, pushing chains of peptoids together and squeezing them out into a nanosheet. The air-water interface essentially acts as a catalyst for producing nanosheets in 95% yield," added Zuckermann. "What's more, this process may be general for a wide variety of two-dimensional nanomaterials."

Contact: Aditi Risbud
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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