Viruses are a fascination in our world: On the one hand, they are reputed to be the most common living thing in the world, but on the other, they not considered living at all, as they are not able to reproduce themselves and lack a cell structure. Clearly they are a critical part of a little understood web of life that encompasses horizontal gene transfer, random selection and the ebb and flow of population growth and decline.
They are, especially, survivors, but they need a host in order to pass on their DNA. One key to their success, therefore, is the ability to selectively bind to this host. A science team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is studying this capability to improve the performance of green energy technologies.
Angela Belcher leads the team and is an all-star of bio-inspired design. She is the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT and a faculty member at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. She has just received this year's Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors an outstanding inventor dedicated to improving the world through technological invention.
Inspired by nature in her youth, Belcher turned a fascination with the biomineralization of the abalone shell into her Ph.D dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is now one of the world's foremost experts in nanotechnology and heads the Biomolecular Materials Group at MIT. Her group studies how to combine organic and inorganic materials together, much as the abalone manufactures a complex matrix of proteins and minerals for strength. The team focuses on getting biological materials to work with inorganic materials, such as metals and semi-conductors.
Belcher is continually asking two questions: How can we impart genetic information coding for materials? Can we get living organisms to work with more of the periodic table?
She and her talented students work in the zone where biomaterials and nanotechnology meet, and their inspiration is DNA as it is used as a precise toolkit among nature's "biomineralizers," such as the abalone or diatoms or magnetotatic bacteria.
Much of their work is with engineered viruses. Belcher invented a process in which she genetically engineers the DNA of bacteriophages (benign bacterial specific viruses) to interact with inorganic materials. By splicing new genes into the DNA sequence of a phage her researchers are able to create new phages. This is repeated in rapid random selection with billions of viruses until a huge peptide library has been assembled. The most promising combinations of genes present a molecular arrangement with an affinity for a material of interest, such as a metal or semi-conductor. These are then tested for use.
Solar panel image by Fedorov Oleksiy via Shutterstock.
Next page: Two significant breakthroughs