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Better rubber through biotech

Posted by Richard on October 14, 2005

I think this is pretty cool: Scientists in Australia have created a synthetic version of the rubbery protein, resilin, that gives fleas their jumping ability and enables insects’ wings to flex hundreds of millions of times without losing elasticity. They began, acccording to, with an educated guess:

Although the gene that generates resilin in fruitflies had already been tentatively identified by other researchers, the precise code for making resilin was not known. So the Australian scientists picked out a small section of DNA at the end of the gene that contained lots of repeating sections of code, hoping that it would make resilin.

They reasoned that as elastic proteins in nature are often made of repeating sequences of amino acids, the genes responsible for constructing them must also be repetitive. "It was a bit of a guess," admits Elvin.

They inserted this portion of fruit fly gene into E. coli bacteria. The bacteria multiplied like, well, bacteria and produced a resilin precurser protein. Somehow, the researchers figured out just what to do with this liquid:

The researchers then mixed pro-resilin with a ruthenium catalyst under a light, which knitted together units of the amino acid tyrosine within the molecules. After just 20 seconds the liquid mixture turned into a rubbery solid that behaved exactly like resilin itself, they report in this week’s Nature.

The reaction worked on the very first attempt, recalls Elvin. "I remember running around the lab that day showing it to everybody, saying ‘Here, feel this!’," he laughs.

One of the first applications to be studied is artificial spinal discs, which are currently made with polythene plastic. Resilin’s ability to flex without losing elasticity may lead to significantly improved artificial discs.

The team, which works for CSIRO Livestock Industries in St Lucia, Australia, is hoping to improve the synthetic resilin further with another genetic modification:

The group is also trying to add a gene that makes spider silk to the modified E. coli, so that the rubber it produces is stronger than resilin itself while being just as stretchy. "People have been trying to do similar things with spider silk for a while," says Lakes, "and I think this approach could bear fruit."

Of course, the luddites will scream "Frankenrubber!" and fret about the dangers of E. coli that can bounce, but I think this kind of biotech invention is terrific, and I’m delighted to see that it comes from a private company, not a government lab or university. 

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