Scientists working at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have turned misfolded proteins known as prions into a construction toolkit for manufacturing nanoscale electrical circuits. UPI Science News explains.
When it comes to building the microscopic wires needed to make up the circuits of future pocket supercomputers, findings released Monday reveal strands of a type of yeast protein could rise to the occasion.
In natural form, the protein resembles the misshapen compounds riddling the brains of mad cow disease and Alzheimer's patients. Scientists have made fibers from the protein, called NM, that have proven unusually durable against extremes of acid, heat and cold -- the same harsh physical conditions that might be encountered during factory manufacturing.
"It's exciting because it really suggests we can build devices harnessing the extraordinarily diverse and wonderful properties of proteins that nature has provided us after millions of years of evolution," researcher Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, told United Press International. "It's sort of a dream world of science fiction in its baby steps, but I think it's not too far off from what we can achieve very soon."
But is this dangerous?
In findings appearing online on March 31 from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lindquist and her team reveal they might develop nanowires for electronics by using genetically engineered yeast amyloids.
Amyloids are misfolded proteins found plaguing the victims of cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's disease and many other ailments. The researchers used a kind of yeast protein called a prion. Amyloid prions are believed to be the cause of mad cow disease and related plagues. They are infamous for their extraordinary resistance to destruction.
Lindquist and colleagues genetically engineered the protein -- which is not infectious to humans -- so that its surface was studded with the amino acid cysteine, which spontaneously bonds with gold.
You have the answer: this process is not infectious.
Besides the UPI Science News article, you also can read this press release from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, "Prions Offer Nanotech Building Tool" or these comments from Scientific American, "Researchers Put Rogue Proteins to Work Assembling Nanowires."
Sources: Charles Choi, UPI Science News, March 31, 2003; Rick Borchelt, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, March 31, 2003; Sarah Graham, Scientific American, March 31, 2003
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