Making Plastic Smarter With Protein

March 23, 2003

Making Plastic Smarter With Protein

Troy, N.Y. - How do you improve on plastic, a modern material that has already changed the way we do everything from design medical devices to build cars? Embed it with specialized proteins called enzymes, says Shekhar Garde, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"Such protein-enhanced plastics might someday be able to act as ultra-hygienic surfaces or sensors to detect the presence of various chemicals," says Garde. These types of materials could have a wide range of applications, for example, in the security or medical industries.

Proteins require water to function, however. Nonwatery environments do not provide the driving force necessary to keep proteins in their normally intricately folded state; unfolded, the molecules cease to function. To learn what it takes to successfully integrate proteins into a dry substance such as plastic, Garde and his graduate student Lu Yang use molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to create a computer model of the proteins and study the molecules in both watery and non-watery environments such as organic solvents. They are working in collaboration with Jonathan S. Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann '42 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who conducted the initial protein research.

Garde and Yang are presenting their research at the 225th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, held March 23-27 in New Orleans, La.

Proteins Are Powerful, but Sensitive
Proteins are "molecular machines," according to Garde, uniquely able to efficiently and reliably conduct chemical processes. Their powerful activity, however, is limited to relatively low temperatures and pressures. Helping proteins adapt to a non-water-based environment may actually increase the resiliency of the molecules and make them useful in situations they otherwise would not survive in, such as exposure to high temperatures or other extreme conditions. In addition to preserving protein's known actions, the researchers speculate that they may also "discover that proteins could perform some new functions [in dry environments], something that they could not do in water," according to Yang.

About Biotechnology at Rensselaer
Biotechnology research at Rensselaer focuses on key areas where life sciences interface with information science, applied mathematics, engineering, and the physical and mathematical sciences. Areas of research include functional tissue engineering (creating replacement tissues and organs that can augment or replace damaged tissue); integrated systems biology (systems-based, experimental methods of gaining insight into the function of complex biosystems); and computational biology and bioinformatics (using IT tools to search massive databases, such as those generated by the Human Genome project, to efficiently correlate relevant facts).

Contact: Joely Johnson
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