Tag Archives: proteins

Sonifying proteins to make music and brand new proteins

Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been working with music and science for a number of years. My December 9, 2011 posting, Music, math, and spiderwebs, was the first one here featuring his work. My November 28, 2012 posting, Producing stronger silk musically, was a followup to Buehler’s previous work.

A June 28, 2019 news item on Azonano provides a recent update,

Composers string notes of different pitch and duration together to create music. Similarly, cells join amino acids with different characteristics together to make proteins.

Now, researchers have bridged these two seemingly disparate processes by translating protein sequences into musical compositions and then using artificial intelligence to convert the sounds into brand-new proteins. …

Caption: Researchers at MIT have developed a system for converting the molecular structures of proteins, the basic building blocks of all living beings, into audible sound that resembles musical passages. Then, reversing the process, they can introduce some variations into the music and convert it back into new proteins never before seen in nature. Credit: Zhao Qin and Francisco Martin-Martinez

A June 26, 2019 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail and a video,

To make proteins, cellular structures called ribosomes add one of 20 different amino acids to a growing chain in combinations specified by the genetic blueprint. The properties of the amino acids and the complex shapes into which the resulting proteins fold determine how the molecule will work in the body. To better understand a protein’s architecture, and possibly design new ones with desired features, Markus Buehler and colleagues wanted to find a way to translate a protein’s amino acid sequence into music.

The researchers transposed the unique natural vibrational frequencies of each amino acid into sound frequencies that humans can hear. In this way, they generated a scale consisting of 20 unique tones. Unlike musical notes, however, each amino acid tone consisted of the overlay of many different frequencies –– similar to a chord. Buehler and colleagues then translated several proteins into audio compositions, with the duration of each tone specified by the different 3D structures that make up the molecule. Finally, the researchers used artificial intelligence to recognize specific musical patterns that corresponded to certain protein architectures. The computer then generated scores and translated them into new-to-nature proteins. In addition to being a tool for protein design and for investigating disease mutations, the method could be helpful for explaining protein structure to broad audiences, the researchers say. They even developed an Android app [Amino Acid Synthesizer] to allow people to create their own bio-based musical compositions.

Here’s the ACS video,

A June 26, 2019 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert) provides some specifics and the MIT news release includes two embedded audio files,

Want to create a brand new type of protein that might have useful properties? No problem. Just hum a few bars.

In a surprising marriage of science and art, researchers at MIT have developed a system for converting the molecular structures of proteins, the basic building blocks of all living beings, into audible sound that resembles musical passages. Then, reversing the process, they can introduce some variations into the music and convert it back into new proteins never before seen in nature.

Although it’s not quite as simple as humming a new protein into existence, the new system comes close. It provides a systematic way of translating a protein’s sequence of amino acids into a musical sequence, using the physical properties of the molecules to determine the sounds. Although the sounds are transposed in order to bring them within the audible range for humans, the tones and their relationships are based on the actual vibrational frequencies of each amino acid molecule itself, computed using theories from quantum chemistry.

The system was developed by Markus Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, along with postdoc Chi Hua Yu and two others. As described in the journal ACS Nano, the system translates the 20 types of amino acids, the building blocks that join together in chains to form all proteins, into a 20-tone scale. Any protein’s long sequence of amino acids then becomes a sequence of notes.

While such a scale sounds unfamiliar to people accustomed to Western musical traditions, listeners can readily recognize the relationships and differences after familiarizing themselves with the sounds. Buehler says that after listening to the resulting melodies, he is now able to distinguish certain amino acid sequences that correspond to proteins with specific structural functions. “That’s a beta sheet,” he might say, or “that’s an alpha helix.”

Learning the language of proteins

The whole concept, Buehler explains, is to get a better handle on understanding proteins and their vast array of variations. Proteins make up the structural material of skin, bone, and muscle, but are also enzymes, signaling chemicals, molecular switches, and a host of other functional materials that make up the machinery of all living things. But their structures, including the way they fold themselves into the shapes that often determine their functions, are exceedingly complicated. “They have their own language, and we don’t know how it works,” he says. “We don’t know what makes a silk protein a silk protein or what patterns reflect the functions found in an enzyme. We don’t know the code.”

By translating that language into a different form that humans are particularly well-attuned to, and that allows different aspects of the information to be encoded in different dimensions — pitch, volume, and duration — Buehler and his team hope to glean new insights into the relationships and differences between different families of proteins and their variations, and use this as a way of exploring the many possible tweaks and modifications of their structure and function. As with music, the structure of proteins is hierarchical, with different levels of structure at different scales of length or time.

The team then used an artificial intelligence system to study the catalog of melodies produced by a wide variety of different proteins. They had the AI system introduce slight changes in the musical sequence or create completely new sequences, and then translated the sounds back into proteins that correspond to the modified or newly designed versions. With this process they were able to create variations of existing proteins — for example of one found in spider silk, one of nature’s strongest materials — thus making new proteins unlike any produced by evolution.

Although the researchers themselves may not know the underlying rules, “the AI has learned the language of how proteins are designed,” and it can encode it to create variations of existing versions, or completely new protein designs, Buehler says. Given that there are “trillions and trillions” of potential combinations, he says, when it comes to creating new proteins “you wouldn’t be able to do it from scratch, but that’s what the AI can do.”

“Composing” new proteins

By using such a system, he says training the AI system with a set of data for a particular class of proteins might take a few days, but it can then produce a design for a new variant within microseconds. “No other method comes close,” he says. “The shortcoming is the model doesn’t tell us what’s really going on inside. We just know it works.

This way of encoding structure into music does reflect a deeper reality. “When you look at a molecule in a textbook, it’s static,” Buehler says. “But it’s not static at all. It’s moving and vibrating. Every bit of matter is a set of vibrations. And we can use this concept as a way of describing matter.”

The method does not yet allow for any kind of directed modifications — any changes in properties such as mechanical strength, elasticity, or chemical reactivity will be essentially random. “You still need to do the experiment,” he says. When a new protein variant is produced, “there’s no way to predict what it will do.”

The team also created musical compositions developed from the sounds of amino acids, which define this new 20-tone musical scale. The art pieces they constructed consist entirely of the sounds generated from amino acids. “There are no synthetic or natural instruments used, showing how this new source of sounds can be utilized as a creative platform,” Buehler says. Musical motifs derived from both naturally existing proteins and AI-generated proteins are used throughout the examples, and all the sounds, including some that resemble bass or snare drums, are also generated from the sounds of amino acids.

The researchers have created a free Android smartphone app, called Amino Acid Synthesizer, to play the sounds of amino acids and record protein sequences as musical compositions.

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

A Self-Consistent Sonification Method to Translate Amino Acid Sequences into Musical Compositions and Application in Protein Design Using Artificial Intelligence by Chi-Hua Yu, Zhao Qin, Francisco J. Martin-Martinez, Markus J. Buehler. ACS Nano 2019 XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b02180 Publication Date:June 26, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA October 23, 2019 1000 hours: Ooops! I almost forgot the link to the Aminot Acid Synthesizer.

Sugar in your bones might be better for you than you think

These days sugar is often  viewed as leading to health problems but there is an instance where it may be useful—bone regeneration. From a June 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

There hasn’t been a gold standard for how orthopaedic spine surgeons promote new bone growth in patients, but now Northwestern University scientists have designed a bioactive nanomaterial that is so good at stimulating bone regeneration it could become the method surgeons prefer.

While studied in an animal model of spinal fusion, the method for promoting new bone growth could translate readily to humans, the researchers say, where an aging but active population in the U.S. is increasingly receiving this surgery to treat pain due to disc degeneration, trauma and other back problems. Many other procedures could benefit from the nanomaterial, ranging from repair of bone trauma to treatment of bone cancer to bone growth for dental implants.

“Regenerative medicine can improve quality of life by offering less invasive and more successful approaches to promoting bone growth,” said Samuel I. Stupp, who developed the new nanomaterial. “Our method is very flexible and could be adapted for the regeneration of other tissues, including muscle, tendons and cartilage.”

Stupp is director of Northwestern’s Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology and the Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Medicine and Biomedical Engineering.

For the interdisciplinary study, Stupp collaborated with Dr. Wellington K. Hsu, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, and Erin L. K. Hsu, research assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, both at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The husband-and-wife team is working to improve clinically employed methods of bone regeneration.

Sugar molecules on the surface of the nanomaterial provide its regenerative power. The researchers studied in vivo the effect of the “sugar-coated” nanomaterial on the activity of a clinically used growth factor, called bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP-2). They found the amount of protein needed for a successful spinal fusion was reduced to an unprecedented level: 100 times less of BMP-2 was needed. This is very good news, because the growth factor is known to cause dangerous side effects when used in the amounts required to regenerate high-quality bone, and it is expensive as well.

A June 19, 2017 Northwestern University news release by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item, tells the rest of the story,

Stupp’s biodegradable nanomaterial functions as an artificial extracellular matrix, which mimics what cells in the body usually interact with in their surroundings. BMP-2 activates certain types of stem cells and signals them to become bone cells. The Northwestern matrix, which consists of tiny nanoscale filaments, binds the protein by molecular design in the way that natural sugars bind it in our bodies and then slowly releases it when needed, instead of in one early burst, which can contribute to side effects.

To create the nanostructures, the research team led by Stupp synthesized a specific type of sugar that closely resembles those used by nature to activate BMP-2 when cell signaling is necessary for bone growth. Rapidly moving flexible sugar molecules displayed on the surface of the nanostructures “grab” the protein in a specific spot that is precisely the same one used in biological systems when it is time to deploy the signal. This potentiates the bone-growing signals to a surprising level that surpasses even the naturally occurring sugar polymers in our bodies.

In nature, the sugar polymers are known as sulfated polysaccharides, which have super-complex structures impossible to synthesize at the present time with chemical techniques. Hundreds of proteins in biological systems are known to have specific domains to bind these sugar polymers in order to activate signals. Such proteins include those involved in the growth of blood vessels, cell recruitment and cell proliferation, all very important biologically in tissue regeneration. Therefore, the approach of the Stupp team could be extended to other regenerative targets.

Spinal fusion is a common surgical procedure that joins adjacent vertebra together using a bone graft and growth factors to promote new bone growth, which stabilizes the spine. The bone used in the graft can come from the patient’s pelvis — an invasive procedure — or from a bone bank.

“There is a real need for a clinically efficacious, safe and cost-effective way to form bone,” said Wellington Hsu, a spine surgeon. “The success of this nanomaterial makes me excited that every spine surgeon may one day subscribe to this method for bone graft. Right now, if you poll an audience of spine surgeons, you will get 15 to 20 different answers on what they use for bone graft. We need to standardize choice and improve patient outcomes.”

In the in vivo portion of the study, the nanomaterial was delivered to the spine using a collagen sponge. This is the way surgeons currently deliver BMP-2 clinically to promote bone growth.

The Northwestern research team plans to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to launch a clinical trial studying the nanomaterial for bone regeneration in humans.

“We surgeons are looking for optimal carriers for growth factors and cells,” Wellington Hsu said. “With its numerous binding sites, the long filaments of this new nanomaterial is more successful than existing carriers in releasing the growth factor when the body is ready. Timing is critical for success in bone regeneration.”

In the new nanomaterial, the sugars are displayed in a scaffold built from self-assembling molecules known as peptide amphiphiles, first developed by Stupp 15 years ago. These synthetic molecules have been essential in his work on regenerative medicine.

“We focused on bone regeneration to demonstrate the power of the sugar nanostructure to provide a big signaling boost,” Stupp said. “With small design changes, the method could be used with other growth factors for the regeneration of all kinds of tissues. One day we may be able to fully do away with the use of growth factors made by recombinant biotechnology and instead empower the natural ones in our bodies.”

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

Sulfated glycopeptide nanostructures for multipotent protein activation by Sungsoo S. Lee, Timmy Fyrner, Feng Chen, Zaida Álvarez, Eduard Sleep, Danielle S. Chun, Joseph A. Weiner, Ralph W. Cook, Ryan D. Freshman, Michael S. Schallmo, Karina M. Katchko, Andrew D. Schneider, Justin T. Smith, Chawon Yun, Gurmit Singh, Sohaib Z. Hashmi, Mark T. McClendon, Zhilin Yu, Stuart R. Stock, Wellington K. Hsu, Erin L. Hsu, & Samuel I. Stupp. Nature Nanotechnology 12, 821–829 (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.109 Published online 19 June 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

I hear the proteins singing

Points to anyone who recognized the paraphrasing of the title for the well-loved, Canadian movie, “I heard the mermaids singing.” In this case, it’s all about protein folding and data sonification (from an Oct. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org),

Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work – by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.

The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.

An Oct. 20, 2016 Elsevier Publishing press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”

Proteins are molecules found in living things that have many different functions. Scientists usually study them visually and using data; with modern microscopy it is possible to directly see the structure of some proteins.

Using a technique called sonification, the researchers can now transform data about proteins into musical sounds, or melodies. They wanted to use this approach to ask three related questions: what can protein data sound like? Are there analytical benefits? And can we hear particular elements or anomalies in the data?

They found that a large proportion of people can recognize links between the melodies and more traditional visuals like models, graphs and tables; it seems hearing these visuals is easier than they expected. The melodies are also pleasant to listen to, encouraging scientists to listen to them more than once and therefore repeatedly analyze the proteins.

The sonifications are created using a combination of Dr. Middleton’s composing skills and algorithms, so that others can use a similar process with their own proteins. The multidisciplinary approach – combining bioinformatics and music informatics – provides a completely new perspective on a complex problem in biology.

“Protein fold assignment is a notoriously tricky area of research in molecular biology,” said Dr. Robert Bywater from the Francis Crick Institute. “One not only needs to identify the fold type but to look for clues as to its many functions. It is not a simple matter to unravel these overlapping messages. Music is seen as an aid towards achieving this unraveling.”

The researchers say their molecular melodies can be used almost immediately in teaching protein science, and after some practice, scientists will be able to use them to discriminate between different protein structures and spot irregularities like mutations.

Proteins are the first stop, but our knowledge of other molecules could also benefit from sonification; one day we may be able to listen to our genomes, and perhaps use this to understand the role of junk DNA [emphasis mine].

About 97% of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) has been known for some decades as ‘junk DNA’. In roughly 2012, that was notion was challenged as Stephen S. Hall wrote in an Oct. 1, 2012 article (Hidden Treasures in Junk DNA; What was once known as junk DNA turns out to hold hidden treasures, says computational biologist Ewan Birney) for Scientific American.

Getting back to  2016, here’s a link to and a citation for ‘protein singing’,

Melody discrimination and protein fold classification by  Robert P. Bywater, Jonathan N. Middleton. Heliyon 20 Oct 2016, Volume 2, Issue 10 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e0017

This paper is open access.

Here’s what the proteins sound like,

Supplementary Audio 3 for file for Supplementary Figure 2 1r75 OHEL sonification full score. [downloaded from the previously cited Heliyon paper]

Joanna Klein has written an Oct. 21, 2016 article for the New York Times providing a slightly different take on this research (Note: Links have been removed),

“It’s used for the concert hall. It’s used for sports. It’s used for worship. Why can’t we use it for our data?” said Jonathan Middleton, the composer at Eastern Washington University and the University of Tampere in Finland who worked with Dr. Bywater.

Proteins have been around for billions of years, but humans still haven’t come up with a good way to visualize them. Right now scientists can shoot a laser at a crystallized protein (which can distort its shape), measure the patterns it spits out and simulate what that protein looks like. These depictions are difficult to sift through and hard to remember.

“There’s no simple equation like e=mc2,” said Dr. Bywater. “You have to do a lot of spade work to predict a protein structure.”

Dr. Bywater had been interested in assigning sounds to proteins since the 1990s. After hearing a song Dr. Middleton had composed called “Redwood Symphony,” which opens with sounds derived from the tree’s DNA, he asked for his help.

Using a process called sonification (which is the same thing used to assign different ringtones to texts, emails or calls on your cellphone) the team took three proteins and turned their folding shapes — a coil, a turn and a strand — into musical melodies. Each shape was represented by a bunch of numbers, and those numbers were converted into a musical code. A combination of musical sounds represented each shape, resulting in a song of simple patterns that changed with the folds of the protein. Later they played those songs to a group of 38 people together with visuals of the proteins, and asked them to identify similarities and differences between them. The two were surprised that people didn’t really need the visuals to detect changes in the proteins.

Plus, I have more about data sonification in a Feb. 7, 2014 posting regarding a duet based on data from Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft.

Finally, I hope my next Steep project will include  sonification of data on gold nanoparticles. I will keep you posted on any developments.

Ocean-inspired coatings for organic electronics

An Oct. 19, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the advantages a new coating offers and the specific source of inspiration,

In a development beneficial for both industry and environment, UC Santa Barbara [University of California at Santa Barbara] researchers have created a high-quality coating for organic electronics that promises to decrease processing time as well as energy requirements.

“It’s faster, and it’s nontoxic,” said Kollbe Ahn, a research faculty member at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and corresponding author of a paper published in Nano Letters.

In the manufacture of polymer (also known as “organic”) electronics—the technology behind flexible displays and solar cells—the material used to direct and move current is of supreme importance. Since defects reduce efficiency and functionality, special attention must be paid to quality, even down to the molecular level.

Often that can mean long processing times, or relatively inefficient processes. It can also mean the use of toxic substances. Alternatively, manufacturers can choose to speed up the process, which could cost energy or quality.

Fortunately, as it turns out, efficiency, performance and sustainability don’t always have to be traded against each other in the manufacture of these electronics. Looking no further than the campus beach, the UCSB researchers have found inspiration in the mollusks that live there. Mussels, which have perfected the art of clinging to virtually any surface in the intertidal zone, serve as the model for a molecularly smooth, self-assembled monolayer for high-mobility polymer field-effect transistors—in essence, a surface coating that can be used in the manufacture and processing of the conductive polymer that maintains its efficiency.

An Oct. 18, 2016 UCSB news release by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, provides greater technical detail,

More specifically, according to Ahn, it was the mussel’s adhesion mechanism that stirred the researchers’ interest. “We’re inspired by the proteins at the interface between the plaque and substrate,” he said.

Before mussels attach themselves to the surfaces of rocks, pilings or other structures found in the inhospitable intertidal zone, they secrete proteins through the ventral grove of their feet, in an incremental fashion. In a step that enhances bonding performance, a thin priming layer of protein molecules is first generated as a bridge between the substrate and other adhesive proteins in the plaques that tip the byssus threads of their feet to overcome the barrier of water and other impurities.

That type of zwitterionic molecule — with both positive and negative charges — inspired by the mussel’s native proteins (polyampholytes), can self-assemble and form a sub-nano thin layer in water at ambient temperature in a few seconds. The defect-free monolayer provides a platform for conductive polymers in the appropriate direction on various dielectric surfaces.

Current methods to treat silicon surfaces (the most common dielectric surface), for the production of organic field-effect transistors, requires a batch processing method that is relatively impractical, said Ahn. Although heat can hasten this step, it involves the use of energy and increases the risk of defects.

With this bio-inspired coating mechanism, a continuous roll-to-roll dip coating method of producing organic electronic devices is possible, according to the researchers. It also avoids the use of toxic chemicals and their disposal, by replacing them with water.

“The environmental significance of this work is that these new bio-inspired primers allow for nanofabrication on silicone dioxide surfaces in the absence of organic solvents, high reaction temperatures and toxic reagents,” said co-author Roscoe Lindstadt, a graduate student researcher in UCSB chemistry professor Bruce Lipshutz’s lab. “In order for practitioners to switch to newer, more environmentally benign protocols, they need to be competitive with existing ones, and thankfully device performance is improved by using this ‘greener’ method.”

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

Molecularly Smooth Self-Assembled Monolayer for High-Mobility Organic Field-Effect Transistors by Saurabh Das, Byoung Hoon Lee, Roscoe T. H. Linstadt, Keila Cunha, Youli Li, Yair Kaufman, Zachary A. Levine, Bruce H. Lipshutz, Roberto D. Lins, Joan-Emma Shea, Alan J. Heeger, and B. Kollbe Ahn. Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (10), pp 6709–6715
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03860 Publication Date (Web): September 27, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but the scientists have made an illustration available,

An artist's concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen

An artist’s concept of a zwitterionic molecule of the type secreted by mussels to prime surfaces for adhesion Photo Credit: Peter Allen

Graphene ribbons in solution bending and twisting like DNA

An Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into graphene nanoribbons and their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)-like properties,

Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) bend and twist easily in solution, making them adaptable for biological uses like DNA analysis, drug delivery and biomimetic applications, according to scientists at Rice University.

Knowing the details of how GNRs behave in a solution will help make them suitable for wide use in biomimetics, according to Rice physicist Ching-Hwa Kiang, whose lab employed its unique capabilities to probe nanoscale materials like cells and proteins in wet environments. Biomimetic materials are those that imitate the forms and properties of natural materials.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Rice University (Texas, US) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the ribbons and the research in more detail,

Graphene nanoribbons can be thousands of times longer than they are wide. They can be produced in bulk by chemically “unzipping” carbon nanotubes, a process invented by Rice chemist and co-author James Tour and his lab.

Their size means they can operate on the scale of biological components like proteins and DNA, Kiang said. “We study the mechanical properties of all different kinds of materials, from proteins to cells, but a little different from the way other people do,” she said. “We like to see how materials behave in solution, because that’s where biological things are.” Kiang is a pioneer in developing methods to probe the energy states of proteins as they fold and unfold.

She said Tour suggested her lab have a look at the mechanical properties of GNRs. “It’s a little extra work to study these things in solution rather than dry, but that’s our specialty,” she said.

Nanoribbons are known for adding strength but not weight to solid-state composites, like bicycle frames and tennis rackets, and forming an electrically active matrix. A recent Rice project infused them into an efficient de-icer coating for aircraft.

But in a squishier environment, their ability to conform to surfaces, carry current and strengthen composites could also be valuable.

“It turns out that graphene behaves reasonably well, somewhat similar to other biological materials. But the interesting part is that it behaves differently in a solution than it does in air,” she said. The researchers found that like DNA and proteins, nanoribbons in solution naturally form folds and loops, but can also form helicoids, wrinkles and spirals.

Kiang, Wijeratne [Sithara Wijeratne, Rice graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University] and Jingqiang Li, a co-author and student in the Kiang lab, used atomic force microscopy to test their properties. Atomic force microscopy can not only gather high-resolution images but also take sensitive force measurements of nanomaterials by pulling on them. The researchers probed GNRs and their precursors, graphene oxide nanoribbons.

The researchers discovered that all nanoribbons become rigid under stress, but their rigidity increases as oxide molecules are removed to turn graphene oxide nanoribbons into GNRs. They suggested this ability to tune their rigidity should help with the design and fabrication of GNR-biomimetic interfaces.

“Graphene and graphene oxide materials can be functionalized (or modified) to integrate with various biological systems, such as DNA, protein and even cells,” Kiang said. “These have been realized in biological devices, biomolecule detection and molecular medicine. The sensitivity of graphene bio-devices can be improved by using narrow graphene materials like nanoribbons.”

Wijeratne noted graphene nanoribbons are already being tested for use in DNA sequencing, in which strands of DNA are pulled through a nanopore in an electrified material. The base components of DNA affect the electric field, which can be read to identify the bases.

The researchers saw nanoribbons’ biocompatibility as potentially useful for sensors that could travel through the body and report on what they find, not unlike the Tour lab’s nanoreporters that retrieve information from oil wells.

Further studies will focus on the effect of the nanoribbons’ width, which range from 10 to 100 nanometers, on their properties.

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

Detecting the Biopolymer Behavior of Graphene Nanoribbons in Aqueous Solution by Sithara S. Wijeratne, Evgeni S. Penev, Wei Lu, Jingqiang Li, Amanda L. Duque, Boris I. Yakobson, James M. Tour, & Ching-Hwa Kiang. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 31174 (2016)  doi:10.1038/srep31174 Published online: 09 August 2016

This paper is open access.

Nuclear magnetic resonance microscope breaks records

Dutch researchers have found a way to apply the principles underlying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to a microscope designed *for* examining matter and life at the nanoscale. From a July 15, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) microscope gives researchers an improved instrument to study fundamental physical processes. It also offers new possibilities for medical science—for example, to better study proteins in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. …

A Leiden Institute of Physics press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

If you get a knee injury, physicians use an MRI machine to look right through the skin and see what exactly is the problem. For this trick, doctors make use of the fact that our body’s atomic nuclei are electrically charged and spin around their axis. Just like small electromagnets they induce their own magnetic field. By placing the knee in a uniform magnetic field, the nuclei line up with their axis pointing in the same direction. The MRI machine then sends a specific type of radio waves through the knee, causing some axes to flip. After turning off this signal, those nuclei flip back after some time, under excitation of a small radio wave. Those waves give away the atoms’ location, and provide physicians with an accurate image of the knee.

NMR

MRI is the medical application of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), which is based on the same principle and was invented by physicists to conduct fundamental research on materials. One of the things they study with NMR is the so-called relaxation time. This is the time scale at which the nuclei flip back and it gives a lot of information about a material’s properties.

Microscope

To study materials on the smallest of scales as well, physicists go one step further and develop NMR microscopes, with which they study the mechanics behind physical processes at the level of a group of atoms. Now Leiden PhD students Jelmer Wagenaar and Arthur de Haan have built an NMR microscope, together with principal investigator Tjerk Oosterkamp, that operates at a record temperature of 42 milliKelvin—close to absolute zero. In their article in Physical Review Applied they prove it works by measuring the relaxation time of copper. They achieved a thousand times higher sensitivity than existing NMR microscopes—also a world record.

Alzheimer

With their microscope, they give physicists an instrument to conduct fundamental research on many physical phenomena, like systems displaying strange behavior in extreme cold. And like NMR eventually led to MRI machines in hospitals, NMR microscopes have great potential too. Wagenaar: ‘One example is that you might be able to use our technique to study Alzheimer patients’ brains at the molecular level, in order to find out how iron is locked up in proteins.’

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

Probing the Nuclear Spin-Lattice Relaxation Time at the Nanoscale by J. J. T. Wagenaar, A. M. J. den Haan, J. M. de Voogd, L. Bossoni, T. A. de Jong, M. de Wit, K. M. Bastiaans, D. J. Thoen, A. Endo, T. M. Klapwijk, J. Zaanen, and T. H. Oosterkamp. Phys. Rev. Applied 6, 014007 DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevApplied.6.014007 Published 15 July 2016

This paper is open access.

*’fro’ changed to ‘for’ on Aug. 3, 2016.

‘Getting into’ cellulose walls at the University of Cambridge (UK) and University of Melbourne (Australia)

“Getting into” as used in the headline is slang for exploring a topic in more depth which is what an international team of researchers did when they ‘got into’ cellulose. From a June 9, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

In the search for low emission plant-based fuels, new research may help avoid having to choose between growing crops for food or fuel.

Scientists have identified new steps in the way plants produce cellulose, the component of plant cell walls that provides strength, and forms insoluble fibre in the human diet.

The findings could lead to improved production of cellulose and guide plant breeding for specific uses such as wood products and ethanol fuel, which are sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-based products.

Published in the journal Nature Communications today, the work was conducted by an international team of scientists, led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Melbourne.

A June 9, 2016 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Our research identified several proteins that are essential in the assembly of the protein machinery that makes cellulose”, said Melbourne’s Prof Staffan Persson.

“We found that these assembly factors control how much cellulose is made, and so plants without them can not produce cellulose very well and the defect substantially impairs plant biomass production. The ultimate aim of this research would be breed plants that have altered activity of these proteins so that cellulose production can be improved for the range of applications that use cellulose including paper, timber and ethanol fuels.”

The newly discovered proteins are located in an intracellular compartment called the Golgi where proteins are sorted and modified.

“If the function of this protein family is abolished the cellulose synthesizing complexes become stuck in the Golgi and have problems reaching the cell surface where they normally are active” said the lead authors of the study, Drs. Yi Zhang (Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology) and Nino Nikolovski (University of Cambridge).

“We therefore named the new proteins STELLO, which is Greek for to set in place, and deliver.”

“The findings are important to understand how plants produce their biomass”, said Professor Paul Dupree from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry.

“Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from the biomass of plants, are estimated to be roughly 85 percent less than from fossil fuel sources. Research to understand cellulose production in plants is therefore an important part of climate change mitigation.”

“In addition, by using cellulosic plant materials we get around the problem of food-versus-fuel scenario that is problematic when using corn as a basis for bioethanol.”

“It is therefore of great importance to find genes and mechanisms that can improve cellulose production in plants so that we can tailor cellulose production for various needs.”

Previous studies by Profs. Persson’s and Dupree’s research groups have, together with other scientists, identified many proteins that are important for cellulose synthesis and for other cell wall polymers.

With the newly presented research they substantially increase our understanding for how the bulk of a plant’s biomass is produced and is therefore of vast importance to industrial applications.

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

Golgi-localized STELLO proteins regulate the assembly and trafficking of cellulose synthase complexes in Arabidopsis by Yi Zhang, Nino Nikolovski, Mathias Sorieul, Tamara Vellosillo, Heather E. McFarlane, Ray Dupree, Christopher Kesten, René Schneider, Carlos Driemeier, Rahul Lathe, Edwin Lampugnani, Xiaolan Yu, Alexander Ivakov, Monika S. Doblin, Jenny C. Mortimer, Steven P. Brown, Staffan Persson, & Paul Dupree. Nature Communications 7,
Article number: 11656 doi:10.1038/ncomms11656 Published  09 June 2016

This paper is open access.

Encapsulation of proteins in nanoparticles no longer necessary for time release?

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) have developed a technique for the therapeutic use of proteins that doesn’t require ‘nanoencapsulation’ although nanoparticles are still used according to a May 27, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A U of T [University of Toronto] Engineering team has designed a simpler way to keep therapeutic proteins where they are needed for long periods of time. The discovery is a potential game-changer for the treatment of chronic illnesses or injuries that often require multiple injections or daily pills.

For decades, biomedical engineers have been painstakingly encapsulating proteins in nanoparticles to control their release. Now, a research team led by University Professor Molly Shoichet has shown that proteins can be released over several weeks, even months, without ever being encapsulated. In this case the team looked specifically at therapeutic proteins relevant to tissue regeneration after stroke and spinal cord injury.

“It was such a surprising and unexpected discovery,” said co-lead author Dr. Irja Elliott Donaghue, who first found that the therapeutic protein NT3, a factor that promotes the growth of nerve cells, was slowly released when just mixed into a Jello-like substance that also contained nanoparticles. “Our first thought was, ‘What could be happening to cause this?'”

A May 27, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, provides more in depth explanation,

Proteins hold enormous promise to treat chronic conditions and irreversible injuries — for example, human growth hormone is encapsulated in these tiny polymeric particles, and used to treat children with stunted growth. In order to avoid repeated injections or daily pills, researchers use complicated strategies both to deliver proteins to their site of action, and to ensure they’re released over a long enough period of time to have a beneficial effect.

This has long been a major challenge for protein-based therapies, especially because proteins are large and often fragile molecules. Until now, investigators have been treating proteins the same way as small drug molecules and encapsulating them in polymeric nanoparticles, often made of a material called poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) or PLGA.

As the nanoparticles break down, the drug molecules escape. The same process is true for proteins; however, the encapsulating process itself often damages or denatures some of the encapsulated proteins, rendering them useless for treatment. Skipping encapsulation altogether means fewer denatured proteins, making for more consistent protein therapeutics that are easier to make and store.

“This is really exciting from a translational perspective,” said PhD candidate Jaclyn Obermeyer. “Having a simpler, more reliable fabrication process leaves less room for complications with scale-up for clinical use.”

The three lead authors, Elliott Donoghue, Obermeyer and Dr. Malgosia Pakulska have shown that to get the desired controlled release, proteins only need to be alongside the PLGA nanoparticles, not inside them. …

“We think that this could speed up the path for protein-based drugs to get to the clinic,” said Elliott Donaghue.

The mechanism for this encapsulation-free controlled release is surprisingly elegant. Shoichet’s group mixes the proteins and nanoparticles in a Jello-like substance called a hydrogel, which keeps them localized when injected at the site of injury. The positively charged proteins and negatively charged nanoparticles naturally stick together. As the nanoparticles break down they make the solution more acidic, weakening the attraction and letting the proteins break free.

“We are particularly excited to show long-term, controlled protein release by simply controlling the electrostatic interactions between proteins and polymeric nanobeads,” said Shoichet. “By manipulating the pH of the solution, the size and number of nanoparticles, we can control release of bioactive proteins. This has already changed and simplified the protein release strategies that we are pursuing in pre-clinical models of disease in the brain and spinal cord.”

“We’ve learned how to control this simple phenomena,” Pakulska said. “Our next question is whether we can do the opposite—design a similar release system for positively charged nanoparticles and negatively charged proteins.”

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

Encapsulation-free controlled release: Electrostatic adsorption eliminates the need for protein encapsulation in PLGA nanoparticles by Malgosia M. Pakulska, Irja Elliott Donaghue, Jaclyn M. Obermeyer, Anup Tuladhar, Christopher K. McLaughlin, Tyler N. Shendruk, and Molly S. Shoichet. Science Advances  27 May 2016: Vol. 2, no. 5, e1600519 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600519

This paper appears to be open access.

Dr. Molly Shoichet was featured here in a May 11, 2015 posting about the launch of her Canada-wide science communication project Research2.Reality.

Biological supercomputers (living, breathing supercomputers) and an international collaboration spearheaded by Canadian scientists

A living, breathing supercomputer is a bit mind-boggling but scientists at McGill University (Canada) and their international colleagues have created a working model according to a Feb. 26, 2016 McGill University news release on EurekAlert (and received via email), Note: A link has been removed,

The substance that provides energy to all the cells in our bodies, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), may also be able to power the next generation of supercomputers. That is what an international team of researchers led by Prof. Nicolau, the Chair of the Department of Bioengineering at McGill, believe. They’ve published an article on the subject earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in which they describe a model of a biological computer that they have created that is able to process information very quickly and accurately using parallel networks in the same way that massive electronic super computers do.

Except that the model bio supercomputer they have created is a whole lot smaller than current supercomputers, uses much less energy, and uses proteins present in all living cells to function.

Doodling on the back of an envelope

“We’ve managed to create a very complex network in a very small area,” says Dan Nicolau, Sr. with a laugh. He began working on the idea with his son, Dan Jr., more than a decade ago and was then joined by colleagues from Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands, some 7 years ago [there is also one collaborator from the US according the journal’s [PNAS] list of author affiliations, read on for the link to the paper]. “This started as a back of an envelope idea, after too much rum I think, with drawings of what looked like small worms exploring mazes.”

The model bio-supercomputer that the Nicolaus (father and son) and their colleagues have created came about thanks to a combination of geometrical modelling and engineering knowhow (on the nano scale). It is a first step, in showing that this kind of biological supercomputer can actually work.

The circuit the researchers have created looks a bit like a road map of a busy and very organized city as seen from a plane. Just as in a city, cars and trucks of different sizes, powered by motors of different kinds, navigate through channels that have been created for them, consuming the fuel they need to keep moving.

More sustainable computing

But in the case of the biocomputer, the city is a chip measuring about 1.5 cm square in which channels have been etched. Instead of the electrons that are propelled by an electrical charge and move around within a traditional microchip, short strings of proteins (which the researchers call biological agents) travel around the circuit in a controlled way, their movements powered by ATP, the chemical that is, in some ways, the juice of life for everything from plants to politicians.

Because it is run by biological agents, and as a result hardly heats up at all, the model bio-supercomputer that the researchers have developed uses far less energy than standard electronic supercomputers do, making it more sustainable. Traditional supercomputers use so much electricity that they heat up a lot and then need to be cooled down, often requiring their own power plant to function.

Moving from model to reality

Although the model bio supercomputer was able to very efficiently tackle a complex classical mathematical problem by using parallel computing of the kind used by supercomputers, the researchers recognize that there is still a lot of work ahead to move from the model they have created to a full-scale functional computer.

”Now that this model exists as a way of successfully dealing with a single problem, there are going to be many others who will follow up and try to push it further, using different biological agents, for example,” says Nicolau. “It’s hard to say how soon it will be before we see a full scale bio super-computer. One option for dealing with larger and more complex problems may be to combine our device with a conventional computer to form a hybrid device. Right now we’re working on a variety of ways to push the research further.”

What was once the stuff of science fiction, is now just science.

The funding for this project is interesting,

This research was funded by: The European Union Seventh Framework Programme; [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]; NanoLund; The Miller Foundation; The Swedish Research Council; The Carl Trygger Foundation; the German Research Foundation; and by Linnaeus University.

I don’t see a single Canadian funding agency listed.

In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Parallel computation with molecular-motor-propelled agents in nanofabricated networks by Dan V. Nicolau, Jr., Mercy Lard, Till Kortend, Falco C. M. J. M. van Delft, Malin Persson, Elina Bengtsson, Alf Månsson, Stefan Diez, Heiner Linke, and Dan V. Nicolau. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/02/17/1510825113

This paper appears to be open access.

Finally, the researchers have provided an image illustrating their work,

Caption: Strands of proteins of different lengths move around the chip in the bio computer in directed patterns, a bit like cars and trucks navigating the streets of a city. Credit: Till Korten

Caption: Strands of proteins of different lengths move around the chip in the bio computer in directed patterns, a bit like cars and trucks navigating the streets of a city. Credit: Till Korten

ETA Feb. 29 2016: Technical University Dresden’s Feb. 26, 2016 press release on EurekAlert also announces the bio-computer albeit from a rather different perspective,

The pioneering achievement was developed by researchers from the Technische Universität Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden in collaboration with international partners from Canada, England, Sweden, the US, and the Netherlands.

Conventional electronic computers have led to remarkable technological advances in the past decades, but their sequential nature -they process only one computational task at a time- prevents them from solving problems of combinatorial nature such as protein design and folding, and optimal network routing. This is because the number of calculations required to solve such problems grows exponentially with the size of the problem, rendering them intractable with sequential computing. Parallel computing approaches can in principle tackle such problems, but the approaches developed so far have suffered from drawbacks that have made up-scaling and practical implementation very difficult. The recently reported parallel-computing approach aims to address these issues by combining well established nanofabrication technology with molecular motors which are highly energy efficient and inherently work in parallel.

In this approach, which the researchers demonstrate on a benchmark combinatorial problem that is notoriously hard to solve with sequential computers, the problem to be solved is ‘encoded’ into a network of nanoscale channels (Fig. 1a). This is done, on the one hand by mathematically designing a geometrical network that is capable of representing the problem, and on the other hand by fabricating a physical network based on this design using so-called lithography, a standard chip-manufacturing technique.

The network is then explored in parallel by many protein filaments (here actin filaments or microtubules) that are self-propelled by a molecular layer of motor proteins (here myosin or kinesin) covering the bottom of the channels (Fig. 3a). The design of the network using different types of junctions automatically guides the filaments to the correct solutions to the problem (Fig. 1b). This is realized by different types of junctions, causing the filaments to behave in two different ways. As the filaments are rather rigid structures, turning to the left or right is only possible for certain angles of the crossing channels. By defining these options (‘split junctions’ Fig. 2a + 3b and ‘pass junctions’, Fig. 2b + 3c) the scientists achieved an ‘intelligent’ network giving the filaments the opportunity either to cross only straight or to decide between two possible channels with a 50/50 probability.

The time to solve combinatorial problems of size N using this parallel-computing approach scales approximately as N2, which is a dramatic improvement over the exponential (2N) time scales required by conventional, sequential computers. Importantly, the approach is fully scalable with existing technologies and uses orders of magnitude less energy than conventional computers, thus circumventing the heating issues that are currently limiting the performance of conventional computing.

The diagrams mentioned were not included with the press release.