Science - January 4, 2011

Lego with molecules

Martien Cohen Stuart, professor of Physical Chemistry and Colloid Science, got the ultimate Christmas present: a hefty research grant.

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The professor's research project investigating the synthesis of new proteins, 'biosynthetic polyamides', has received 2.5 million euros from the European Research Council (ERC). 'We will be going to the drawing board to design completely new protein molecules and then create them using special genetically modified yeast cells', says Cohen Stuart, explaining his project. 'We want to order amino acids, the building blocks of protein molecules, in ways that will let us create materials with completely new properties.'

Cobweb
The professor is looking to Nature for inspiration. For instance, he has already made molecules that form threads, inspired by cobwebs and the threads produced by silkworms. 'We discovered that those threads consist of molecules with a kind of repeat pattern of about eight amino acids. This pattern, or module, is responsible for the shape. A second recurring pattern ensures that the threads don't stick together', he explains. 'In our project we are now going to look for modules that will create new molecules with special properties when combined in the right way.'

Penetrating
Cohen Stuart says such new materials have numerous applications, including medical ones. Certain diseases are treated by administering RNA to the patient. RNA is related to DNA and plays a key role in the expression of inherited properties. When cancer patients are treated with RNA, for example, it can penetrate the cancer cells and neutralize them. However, such treatment is difficult as enzymes in the body break down the RNA. Cohen Stuart: 'The RNA would not be broken down if you could wrap it in a completely new protein molecule, which would make the treatment more effective. You also avoid the allergic reactions that you might get with naturally occurring proteins.'

Prestigious
According to the professor, other promising applications for new proteins are in the fields of transplantation and regenerative medicine. 'Human cells are now being generated on gelatine-like substrates. We're aiming to use new proteins to make a three-dimensional matrix in the shape of an organ or tissue that human cells will want to adhere to and grow on', explains Cohen Stuart. 'In theory this should be able to grow and become a new organ.'

Fellow professor Marten Scheffer of the Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management Group received an equal amount from the ERC for his research into early signals of a sudden reversal in a system, such as the climate or a migraine attack. ERC grants are highly prestigious, as only the best, most innovative research projects submitted by top scientists in the field have any hope of being successful.

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