Tag Archives: London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN)

‘Golden’ protein crystals

Yet another use for gold. From a March 14, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists from the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) have revealed how materials such as gold can help create protein crystals. The team hope their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports (“Protein crystal nucleation in pores”), could aid the discovery of new medicines and treatments. The Lead author; Professor Naomi Chayen states that “Gold doesn’t react with proteins, due to its inert nature, which makes it an ideal material to create crystals”.

Image: Crystals of an antibody peptide complex related to AIDS research Courtesy: LCN

A March 14, 2017 (?) LCN press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Proteins are crucial to numerous functions in the body – yet scientists are still in the dark about what most of them look like. This is because the most powerful way of revealing the structure of proteins is to turn them into crystals, and then analyse these with X-rays. However, persuading proteins to turn into useful crystals is notoriously difficult. All crystals start from a conception stage when the first molecules come together; this is called nucleation. But reaching nucleation is often difficult as it requires a lot of energy – and many proteins simply can’t overcome this barrier. Scientists also struggle to create medicines that bind to particular proteins – for instance a protein involved in cancer formation, if they don’t know the protein’s structure.

“How can you target a protein if you have no idea what it looks like? It’s like recognising a face in a crowd – you need a picture,” explained Professor Naomi Chayen, lead author of the research.

Forcing molecules together with gold

One technique for allowing proteins to reach their nucleation point is to trap them in tiny holes. This forces the molecules together, which helps them overcome the energy barrier needed to trigger the first crystal. One material that scientists have found to be effective at growing crystals is gold. Creating many holes in the metal creates a substance called porous gold, which acts as a perfect environment for growing crystals, explained Professor Chayen: “Gold doesn’t react with proteins, due to its inert nature, which makes it an ideal material to create crystals. Creating holes in the metal enable it to act a bit like coral, with each hole providing an ideal environment to harbour crystals.”

Creating crystals

In the latest research, the team investigated the best size hole needed to create crystals. They found that a variety of different sized holes produced the highest quality crystals. Most holes were around 5-10nm, just slightly larger than the width of a human hair. Professor Chayen explained: “Imagine walking down a street with many potholes – some of the holes will be big enough for me to step out of, while some will be too small for my foot to fall into. “However, some will be the exact size of my foot, and will trap me in them. This is the same principle as having different pore sizes – it allows us to trap different size protein molecules, enabling them to form crystals.”

She added that the findings which give a simple explanation of why, and under what conditions porous materials can induce protein crystal nucleation may help scientists design porous materials that would produce the highest quality crystals.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Protein crystal nucleation in pores by Christo N. Nanev, Emmanuel Saridakis & Naomi E. Chayen. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 35821 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep35821 Published online: 16 January 2017

This is an open access article.

Generating clean fuel with individual gold atoms

A July 22, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights an international collaboration focused on producing clean fuel,

A combined experimental and theoretical study comprising researchers from the Chemistry Department and LCN [London Centre for Nanotechnology], along with groups in Argentina, China, Spain and Germany, has shed new light on the behaviour of individual gold atoms supported on defective thin cerium dioxide films – an important system for catalysis and the generation of clean hydrogen for fuel.

A July ??, 2016 LCN press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme of catalysts, the research into individual gold atoms, and how all this could result in clean fuel,

Catalysis plays a vital role in our world; an estimated 80% of all chemical and materials are made via processes which involve catalysts, which are commonly a mixture of metals and oxides. The standard motif for these heterogeneous catalysts (where the catalysts are solid and the reactants are in the gas phase) is of a high surface area oxide support that is decorated with metal nanoparticles a few nanometres in diameter. Cerium dioxide (ceria, CeO2) is a widely used support material for many important industrial processes; metal nanoparticles supported on ceria have displayed high activities for applications including car catalytic converters, alcohol synthesis, and for hydrogen production. There are two key attributes of ceria which make it an excellent active support material: its oxygen storage and release ability, and its ability to stabilise small metal particles under reaction conditions. A recent system that has been the focus of much interest has been that of gold nanoparticles and single atoms with ceria, which has demonstrated high activity towards the water-gas-shift reaction, (CO + H2O —> CO2 + H2) a key stage in the generation of clean hydrogen for use in fuel cells.

The nature of the active sites of these catalysts and the role that defects play are still relatively poorly understood; in order to study them in a systematic fashion, the researchers prepared model systems which can be characterised on the atomic scale with a scanning tunnelling microscope.

Figure: STM images of CeO2-x(111) ultrathin films before and after the deposition of Au single atoms at 300 K. The bright lattice is from the oxygen atoms at the surface – vacancies appear as dark spots

These model systems comprised well-ordered, epitaxial ceria films less than 2 nm thick, prepared on a metal single crystal, upon which single atoms and small clusters of gold were evaporated onto under ultra-high-vacuum (essential to prevent contamination of the surfaces). Oxygen vacancy defects – missing oxygen atoms in the top layer of the ceria – are relatively common at the surface and appear as dark spots in the STM images. By mapping the surface before and after the deposition of gold, it is possible to analyse the binding of the metal atoms, in particular there does not appear to be any preference for binding in the vacancy sites at 300 K.

Publishing their results in Physical Review Letters, the researchers combined these experimental results with theoretical studies of the binding energies and diffusion rates across the surface. They showed that kinetic effects governed the behaviour of the gold atoms, prohibiting the expected occupation of the thermodynamically more stable oxygen vacancy sites. They also identified electron transfer between the gold atoms and the ceria, leading to a better understanding of the diffusion phenomena that occur at this scale, and demonstrated that the effect of individual surface defects may be more minor than is normally imagined.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Diffusion Barriers Block Defect Occupation on Reduced CeO2(111) by P.G. Lustemberg, Y. Pan, B.-J. Shaw, D. Grinter, Chi Pang, G. Thornton, Rubén Pérez, M. V. Ganduglia-Pirovano, and N. Nilius. Phys. Rev. Lett. Vol. 116, Iss. 23 — 10 June 2016 2016DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.236101 Published 9 June 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.