Detergent manufacturers have long used enzymes in their formulations for fighting really tough dirt. Jonathan Dordick, a chemical engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is taking the battle against dirt a step further, using nanotechnology to design a self-cleaning plastic in which the enzyme molecules are an integral part of the material. When the plastic comes into contact with bacteria or other pathogens, the enzymes attack the microbes and destroy their ability to bind to its surface.Dordick’s innovation is far more than a boon for those challenged by a sponge and disinfectant. It reflects a growing opportunity for materials scientists to form novel combinations of biological and nonbiological molecules. Indeed, one implication of the rapidly developing field of nanotechnology is that at such small scales, the distinction between biological and nonbiological materials often blurs. As a result, researchers around the world are beginning to fabricate hybrid materials that combine nonbiological elements with biological ones such as DNA and proteins.
Such combinations could give researchers the best of both worlds. Many inorganic materials and plastics excel at conducting electricity or emitting light. Biological materials, on the other hand, are excellent at recognizing other molecules with exquisite sensitivity and can spontaneously assemble themselves into numerous complex structures. “Putting the two together will lead to some unique applications,” says Dordick.
To fabricate the self-cleaning material, Dordick and his Rensselaer colleagues attach enzymes to the surface of large carbon-based molecules called nanotubes. The nanotubes, which stabilize the enzymes, are then incorporated into a polymer. The technique could work for any number of enzymes, opening the door to an array of applications, including materials that kill specific microbes or even degrade oil sludge on contact. Coatings of the enzyme-polymer material could protect implantable medical devices from scar tissue formation.
|Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology/Rice University||Investigating the interface of biological and nonbiological materials|
|Angela Belcher/MIT||Using viruses to produce nanomaterials for optical, electronic, and magnetic devices|
|Yet-Ming Chiang/MIT and Anand Jagota/DuPont||Identifying biological molecules to organize carbon nanotubes for new sensors and electronic devices|
|Jonathan Dordick/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||Fabricating new materials out of biological and nonbiological components|
|Nadrian Seeman/New York University||Using DNA to assemble inorganic particles|