Artificial cells evolve proteins to structure semiconductors

June 8, 2012 | Source: Ars Technica

A marine sponge that produces silicon dioxide fibers (credit: Hannes Grobe, AWI/Wikimedia Commons)

University of California, Santa Barbara scientists have applied genetic engineering to create proteins that can be used to create electronics.

They’ve used the tools of molecular biology and principles of evolution to find proteins that can make new structures of silicon dioxide, commonly found in computer chips, and titanium dioxide, often used in solar cells.

The new silica-forming protein, named silicatein X1, could even make folded sheets of silica-protein fibers.

The work demonstrated that directed evolution of a mineral-producing protein could create materials with never-before seen structures.

The next challenge is to learn how to change the selection pressures to evolve a specific property, such as semiconductor performance. “This approach will begin to allow the same DNA-based evolutionary processes that have created seashells and skeletons to be harnessed to advance human technologies,” they write.

Directed evolution is not limited to these silica-forming proteins, as other organisms have proteins to make interesting materials too. Some marine sponges produce fiberglass that could be used as optical wave guides. And some bacteria build magnetic nanoparticles.

Ref.: Lukmaan A. Bawazer et al., Evolutionary selection of enzymatically synthesized semiconductors from biomimetic mineralization vesicles, PNAS, 2012, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1116958109 (open access)