The work, published in the journal Nature Chemistry reveals scientists at Strathclyde and the City University of New York to have developed a screening method that predicts how peptides – the building blocks of living systems – could combine to form stable gels.
Until now, discovery of new gels relied largely on chance discoveries.
Strathclyde’s Dr Tell Tuttle and the director of nanoscience at CUNY, Professor Rein Ulijn believe the team's breakthrough dramatically simplifies discovery of functional gels that can be used in a wide range of applications.
Professor Ulijn explains that just as people are familiar with DNA as the code for life, this code translates into only 20 chemical building blocks – amino acids – that are combined in specific sequences, known as peptides, that provide structures of living systems.
“It is our aim to design structures based on peptides that are inspired by biology, but are much simpler, making them scalable, tunable, robust and functional and we now have predictive methods to achieve this,” says Professor Ulijn.
Reliably predict whether a peptide can form a structure
According to the leading authors, prior to this discovery, there was no way to reliably predict whether a particular peptide – e.g. a tripeptide composed of three amino acids – would form a structure, such as a biological gel, therefore scientists had to rely on chance or time-consuming individual experiments of each one.
The number of possible sequences of amino acids is huge, meaning it is not feasible to test them all – previously limiting the discovery of new candidate peptides for specific applications.
“There are 8,000 possible tripeptides and we have developed computational methods to predict which of these could be used to develop materials with desirable properties," says Dr Tuttle.
“These methods led to the discovery of a new family of simple tripeptides that are able to form hydrogels at neutral pH. These materials are much simpler compared to the gels of biological systems but they have some interesting properties that may be exploited in various areas, such as cell culture and ingredients for cosmetics,” he concludes.
Nature Chemistry (2014) doi:10.1038/nchem.2122 Accepted: 28 October 2014 Published online: 08 December 2014