A multidisciplinary team sets out to find the ‘Holy Grail’

21 July 2020 | Muriel Cozier

‘This area of study could lead to the development of cellular factories producing materials never seen before

University of California, Berkeley, is leading a team of institutions that have been awarded a five year $20 million research grant from the US’ National Science Foundation (NSF). The funding will allow research teams to pursue breakthrough technologies for medicines and innovative materials.

Chemists, biologists, engineers, and data scientists will collaborate to tackle what is described as a ‘Holy Grail’ problem in the chemical sciences, that being: how to synthesise truly sequence-defined chemical polymers, oligomeric molecules possessing both a pre-determined sequence and a defined length.

‘Nature already knows how to synthesise sequence-defined chemical polymers. We call the molecules protein, DNA and RNA, and the sequence definition here translates into unique structures and functions that support life. But from a chemical standpoint, the monomer choices defined by nature are limiting,’ said Alanna Schepartz, TZ and Imgard Chu Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and UC Berkeley.

The $20 million will fund the NSF Center for Genetically Encoded Materials (C-GEM), which was established during 2017. Research will be carried in 14 laboratories across several organisations these being; UC Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Boston College and St Jude Children’s Hospital.

The research will look to synthesise sequence-defined polymers using ribosomes, which biosynthesise natural proteins using adapter molecules known as tRNAs that deliver alpha amino acids, in a precise order defined by the cell’s DNA. The C-GEM research will develop tRNAs that deliver new monomers, ribosomes that support novel bond-forming reactions and catalysts that further increase the diversity and function of the resulting polymers. ‘Their effort to co-opt the ribosome has the potential to transform polymer synthesis as we know it and to elevate the complexity that can be precisely programmed into polymer design,’ said Dave Berkowitz, Division Director for the Division of Chemistry at the NSF.

Researchers say that this area of study could lead to the development of cellular factories producing materials never seen before, such as a fabric combining the strength of Kevlar and the sheerness of Nylon. There is even the possibility that such fabrics could be embedded with a small molecule sensor, or natural-product-like antibiotics that have never existed in nature and even molecules whose function can be coded on demand.

‘This ambitious Centre synergistically blends several fields of chemistry to bring a whole new level of precision and function to polymer construction,’ Berkowitz added

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