Despite years of effort to stabilize proteins outside of their native environments, scientists have made limited progress in combining proteins with synthetic components like fibers without compromising protein activity. A method was developed to keep proteins active in synthetic environments. A new class of materials with functions found only in living systems keeps certain proteins active outside of the cell. This technology was used to create mats that can soak up and trap chemical pollution.

The white fiber mat contains a stable enzyme that can break down a toxic chemical. (Christopher DelRe and Charley Huang)

The problem with proteins is that they are finicky — remove them from their native environments and they will likely fall apart. To function properly, proteins must fold into a specific structure, often with the help of other proteins. To overcome this challenge, trends in protein sequences and surfaces were analyzed in development of a synthetic polymer that provides everything a protein would need to keep its structure and function.

The researchers then created random heteropolymers (RHPs) that are composed of four types of monomer subunits, each with chemical properties designed to interact with chemical patches on the surface of proteins of interest. The monomers are connected to mimic a natural protein to maximize the flexibility of their interactions with protein surfaces. Molecular simulations showed that the RHP would interact favorably with protein surfaces, leading to correct protein folding and stability outside of the cell.

The researchers then tested whether an RHP can be used to create protein-based materials for bioremediation of toxic chemicals. The RHP was mixed with a protein called organophosphorus hydrolase (OPH), which degrades the toxic organophosphates found in insecticides and chemical warfare agents.

The RHP/OPH combination was used to make fiber mats, which were submersed in an insecticide. The mats degraded an amount of insecticide weighing approximately one-tenth of the total fiber mat in just a few minutes. This opens the door to the creation of larger mats that could soak up toxic chemicals in places like war zones. The approach should be applicable to other enzymes and other materials, enabling the creation of portable chemistry labs for solving different environmental problems.

For more information, contact Brett Israel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 510-643-7741.