The four-year grant will permit Penn researchers to take aim at one of nanotechnology's chief challenges: learning how simple biological molecules organize themselves into structures far more complicated and then putting those lessons to work in the development of synthetic self-assembling molecules.
Principal investigator on the effort is Virgil Percec, a Penn chemistry professor. Together with a team of Penn chemists, physicists, biochemists, biophysicists and materials scientists, Percec hopes to finger synthetic molecules that mimic natural biomolecules' ability to arrange effortlessly into larger structures. The effort will also include a group of international collaborators from the Max Planck Institute, the University of Mainz and the University of Ulm, all in Germany, and the University of Sheffield in Britain.
In large part, nanotechnology seeks to emulate the natural world, where millions of years of evolution have worked to maximize efficiency while minimizing waste. In humans and other animals, a couple of cells give rise to an amazingly diverse array of tissues and organs. Percec's team hopes to recreate, with laboratory-created molecules, this ability of individual biomolecules to coalesce into more complicated structures.
By way of atoms and molecules that assemble themselves from scratch, nanotechnology might allow virtually fully automated production of consumer goods. Scientists believe nanotechnology's self-assembling molecules could lay the groundwork for new products such as microscopic capsules that selectively deliver drugs to tumors, Herculean carbon fibers to bulk up weak plastics, artificial proteins that harness the best properties of natural ones and electronic circuits a fraction of their current size.
Percec's team will use high-resolution X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance to study the structural and other factors that underlie individual biomolecules' remarkable ability to arrange into complex structures such as proteins, nucleic acids like DNA and three-dimensional viral compounds. The team will use the atoms that give rise to these naturally occurring molecules as templates in their attempt to develop single-molecule functional nanostructures.
"It's currently very hard to match biomolecules' level of three-dimensional precision in the lab," Percec said. "We're hoping that by very closely examining biomolecules and understanding their underlying design, we can manipulate nanostructure function at the level of their synthetic building blocks."
Other Penn investigators on the project include William F. Degrado, professor of biochemistry and biophysics; Paul A. Heiney, professor of physics; Randall Kamien, associate professor of physics; Michael Klein, professor of chemistry, professor of physical sciences and director of Penn's Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter; Mitchell Lewis, professor of biochemistry and biophysics; and Karen I. Winey, associate professor of materials science.