Synthetic proteins: Mimicking the molecular machinery of life – Science Nation
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Synthetic proteins: Mimicking the molecular machinery of life – Science Nation

[Music] Mile O’Brien:
The old saying goes “you can’t beat Mother Nature.” Kent Kirshenbaum:
You know, every time we think that we can beat Mother Nature we are humbled
over and over again. Mile O’Brien:
In cell biology, DNA is usually
the star of the show, but DNA’s just a blueprint – a set of instructions
for building proteins. [music] Mile O’Brien:
Now I know when you hear the word “protein” you’re thinking “should I have
the chicken or the fish?” But, biochemically speaking, proteins are a lot more
than what’s for dinner. Enzymes, antibodies – even our
muscles are all protein-based. Kent Kirshenbaum:
The research that I do is in biomimetic chemistry. We can either engineer
natural proteins or we can engineer
synthetic molecules to mimic the shapes, structures and functions
of natural proteins. Mile O’Brien:
With support from the National Science Foundation, chemist Kent Kirshenbaum
and a team at New York University
are developing new methods for making synthetic proteins
in the lab. They see a future,
not far off, when they will be able
to handcraft proteins that have never existed
before in nature and put them to work
at the industrial scale. Kent Kirshenbaum:
We’ve really developed the building block approach to crafting these molecules
in an extremely reliable way. We’re confident that
if we can design a molecule, we’re going to be able
to build it. Mile O’Brien:
Imagine synthetic antibiotics that could fight infections
like MRSA, custom pharmaceuticals to
treat advanced prostate cancer, and new enzymes that
will turn cellulose into fuel. Kent Kirshenbaum:
One way to think about a protein chain is a bunch of beads
on a floppy string. Mile O’Brien:
Inside our cells, biochemical factories
build proteins brick by brick, so to speak –
the bricks being amino acids. In Kirshenbaum’s lab,
they’ve developed methods to do much the same thing
on these tiny beads that they load into a syringe. Kent Kirshenbaum:
The beads provide a very nice surface area, and they’re also porous
so that the chemical reactions can take place
on their surface and in the interior
of these beads. Mile O’Brien:
The big challenge is working out what’s called the protein’s
“folding code” – engineering it to naturally fold
itself into a precise structure. Shape is everything
for proteins. To be effective,
they have to fit together with other chemicals
like a key going into a lock. Kent Kirshenbaum:
Our job is to figure out what that code
is that relates the sequence of those amino acids
to its folding property. We think we can crack that code
if we go into the lab and synthesize chain molecules
with specific sequences of unique new building blocks. Mile O’Brien:
They check their work using a technique
called x-ray crystallography. If the shape of the molecule
is even a little off, it won’t work as designed.
So far, they’ve had good success synthesizing relatively
small ones. Kent Kirshenbaum:
This is a huge, huge deal. We are really
at this threshold. What we need to do
is take this to the next step so that we’re not just mimicking
short individual units, but really mimicking the complex
three-dimensional arrangements of some of these massive
protein structures. Then a whole world of
applications will open for us. Mile O’Brien:
Designing synthetic proteins to create advanced materials,
cleaner and more efficient fuels,
better drugs, and more effective
healthcare treatments. For Science Nation,
I’m Miles O’Brien.

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