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Geek-Up[1.21.2011]: Bio-Prospecting and Self-Assembling Nano Ropes

January 21, 2011 - 5:41pm


In the past year, Lee Elliott logged 3,500 miles traveling the West, replaced eight flat tires and sidestepped one four-foot diamondback rattlesnake – all for algae. As a graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines and a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab, Elliott is helping to develop a collection of up to 500 unique strains of microalgae. From this collection, the researchers plan to select five best performing algae based on growth potential and enhanced lipid production.

Why is this search so important?

You can think of microalgae as biological solar cells – they capture solar energy and fix inorganic carbon into energy-rich lipids which can be converted into biofuels. The best way to make these biofuels commercially viable is to maximize lipid production.

But, there’s a catch: algae tend to produce lipids when they’re under stress, which conversely inhibits their growth. This caveat has sent Elliott on an wide-ranging hunt – from rivers, ponds and lakes to mud and muck of all colors.

Check out the slide show below and hear Elliott talk about his bio-prospecting ventures. And learn more about NREL’s algae analysis here >

At Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, researchers have developed self-assembling nanoscale ropes designed to mimic the intricacy and functionality of biological materials. The possible applications for this technology are far-reaching – from guides to direct the construction of other nanoscale structures to drug-delivery vehicles and molecular sensors and sieves.

To do this, LBNL researchers took a page out of biology’s book. In an organism, peptides form proteins – the building blocks of life. In this project, scientists used peptoids to build synthetic structures that behave like proteins. The peptoid pieces were robotically synthesized and processed, and then added to a solution that encourages self-assembly. The result – a collection of different shapes and structures including braided helices.

Atomic force microscopy image of the nanoscale rope at a resolution of one-millionth of a meter. (Source: LBNL)

Ron Zuckermann, Director of the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, explained, “These braided helices are one of the first forays into making atomically defined block copolymers. The idea is to take something we normally think of as plastic, and enable it to adopt structures that are more complex and capable of higher function.”

Read about these self-assembly structures here >

Niketa Kumar is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Office of Public Affairs