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How Do We Build A Nano-Factory Like Nature?

May 21, 2019 10:28 AM EDT
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It's not surprising to realize that the natural world around us contains several biological and chemical systems that our scientists are only now beginning to discover. The journal Nature reported in 2010 that bioengineered nanofactories that were developed to produce specific molecules could trigger communication between distinct bacterial colonies. It has been known for some time that we could artificially create nanofactories built to our own specifications. Phys.org mentions that nanofactories could potentially disrupt bacterial infections without the use of antibiotics. In the natural world, these nanofactories have a wide variety of purposes, ranging from the isolation and neutralization of toxins to the creation of nutrients used to feed its parent organism. How do we go about constructing a nanofactory using the blueprints provided by nature to do so?

Starting from a Common Base

Science Times mentions that researchers at Michigan State University are learning how to bend the basic building blocks of the nanofactory, a series of protein tiles, to their will. Each nanofactory found in nature uses these tiles to form a shell and from there the actual nanomechanical pieces are assembled to perform the task which is required. While natural shells are made of multiple proteins woven together, the latest iteration of the envelope in the lab uses just a single protein, simplifying the process of creating the shell. The journal ACS Biology mentions that a team has managed to develop this particular artificial shell by isolating one specific protein known as BMC-H and synthesizing a lab variant called BMC-H2, allowing it to form a shell that is smaller (25nm) than that found in nature (40nm). The size is directly linked to how it can be used and the space the artificial shell is likely to take up within a production cell.

How The Process Happens

In the natural world, protein shells are made up of up to three different types of proteins, the most prevalent of them being BMC-H. Six of these BMC-H proteins become joined together to form a hexagonal shape, the walls of the shell. In the mists of the past, three of the BMC-H proteins became linked to one another, creating a structure called BMC-T, which also forms a hexagonal shape. The distinct halves of a BMC-T system can evolve separately from each other, leading to advanced diversity of function within the shell. Scientists are attempting to recreate that in the lab; only this time, we have control over what the BMC-T produces. The implications are enormous since it means that we could theoretically build nanofactories to our own design and specifications. Much like you can build custom software with Brainbox.

From BMC-H to BMC-H2

After isolating and studying the BMC-H protein, the team went on to develop an artificial version of the protein, dubbed BMC-H2. To their surprise, the synthetic protein formed the same sort of hexagonal shape as the BMC-H proteins did. The shells resemble a soccer ball in shape, with hexagons and pentagons scattered around it, with small gaps within the shell structure itself. Seeing the artificial envelopes presenting the same sort of icosahedral formation as the natural shells, the team then moved to cap the spaces with a third type of protein named BMC-P which naturally forms pentagonal shapes - perfect for filling the gaps in the BMC-H2 shell. The final result is the 25nm shell system, a marvel of biotechnological engineering and our earliest steps towards creating fully functional nanofactories.

Where Do We Go from Here?

While we're still a long way away from creating a nanofactory using custom enzymes to perform a specific task, we're well on our way to this next achievement in the evolution of biotechnology. This particular shell could see use in any number of industries, ranging from multiple industrial and medical applications to use in biofuel production. Biotechnology has a lot to figure out going forward, and while the shell may be adapted and tweaked as time goes by, it's a significant step towards creating nanoproduction systems that can perform at a technical level.

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