"Dr. Sarikaya and his team have found that by engineering proteins, they can construct materials molecularly the way nature does. Specially engineered proteins bind specifically to particular molecules. Thanks to Dr. Sarikaya's work, today scientists are realizing they can use engineered proteins to make medicine more efficient and build better stronger materials. And the best part? The products of this technology are all non-toxic and biodegradable, so can return to the Earth without leaving a harmful footprint."
A 7.5 minute audio clip (free registration required) by science reporter Audrey Quinn describes how Dr. Mehmet Sarikaya (University of Washington, Materials Sciences and Engineering) was inspired by the properties of seashells 20 years ago to found the new science of molecular biomimetics. While we rely in large amounts of energy (the 'beat, heat and treat' method) to form materials, biology constructs inorganic structures through proteins that bind inorganic molecules in a highly organized manner.
Rather than engineering materials directly, Dr. Sarikaya's team engineers the underlying proteins which in turn determine the composition and structure of the inorganic material. The team has developed over 1000 peptides that bind 30 specific materials. Potential applications discussed included better bone implants, rebuilding the surface of teeth and regenerating bone. A detailed understanding of protein binding could also lead to new health treatments such as delivering drugs specific to cancer cells. The team has recently been funded to study optical and electronic applications.
Molecular biomimetics shows promise in providing a viable alternative to the high energy and often toxic processes currently required to make technologically important materials. One of the challenges will be either improving the rate at which materials can be produced or conversely reducing our demand for materials.
For additional information, see Sarikaya Research Group at the University of Washington, which also includes a map of sites that are part of the World Biomimetic Network.