March 15 (UPI) -- Scientists have found a way to keep proteins alive outside the cell. The proteins could be used to build a range of new materials with the physical and chemical attributes of living systems.
Empowered by the technological breakthrough, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley wove a mat of proteins capable of soaking up chemical contaminants.
Scientists described their creation and related technology in a new paper published this week in the journal Science.
"We think we've cracked the code for interfacing natural and synthetic systems," Ting Xu, a material science professor at Berkeley, said in a news release.
Proteins tend to fall apart when you remove them from their natural environs inside a cell. Some of their vulnerability stems from the fact that they rely on other proteins inside the cell to help them fold into and maintain their proper shape.
Xu and her fellow researchers developed a fix by creating a polymer capable of providing the structural support proteins need. Scientists studied the sequencing of various proteins to properly tweak the polymer's makeup.
"Proteins have very well-defined statistical pattern, so if you can mimic that pattern, then you can marry the synthetic and natural systems, which allows us to make these materials," Xu said.
Scientists created what's called a heteropolymer by combining four monomers, each designed to support the chemical and structural stability of different parts of the protein. The so-called random heteropolymer, or RHP, functions like structural proteins inside a cell.
Computer simulations confirmed that the RHP would provide the necessary support, wrapping around proteins in water solvents.
To test their technology, scientists married their RHP with organophosphorus hydrolase, or OHP. Using the new hybrid protein-polymer material, scientists created a mat and submerged it in a common insecticide. In just a few minutes, the mat absorbed one-tenth of its weight in toxins.
"Our study indicated that the approach should be applicable to other enzymes," Xu said. "This may make it possible to have a portable chemistry lab in different materials."