Researchers from universities across the UK, led by the University of Bristol, have been awarded £4.9 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the UK’s largest bioscience funder, to investigate how electrons and energy flow through biological molecules by building artificial protein-based wires and circuits.

This promises new ‘green’ catalysts, and biomolecular components for future technologies in biological electronics and engineering biology.

The five-year award, part of the BBSRC’s Strategic Longer and Larger (sLoLa) scheme, brings together an interdisciplinary team of academics from the Universities of Bristol, Portsmouth, East Anglia and University College London, with complementary expertise in protein design, electron transfer, biomolecular simulation, synthetic chemistry and ultrafast spectroscopy.

I’m exceptionally excited to be working with this fantastic team on our ‘Circuits of Life’ project. We aim to release the incredible and largely untapped potential of the natural electron- and energy-conducting circuitry.”

Ross Anderson, Project Lead, Associate Professor in Biological Chemistry, University of Bristol

Dr Anderson has designed ‘unnatural’ proteins (proteins that don’t exist in nature) with the ability to transfer electrons and to carry out important chemical transformations.

In the new project, these proteins will be used as building blocks that promise to be components of new biologically based devices.

The team will combine their expertise to design new proteins able to assemble into biological wires. Molecular analysis will drive design of new properties, and the researchers will use state of the art spectroscopy techniques to reveal the flow of energy and electrons through the designed proteins.

They will use advanced computational tools, including working together in virtual reality to design protein modules: these will be assembled together in the laboratory into circuits, with properties such as the ability to capture light or to funnel electrons to drive biochemical reactions.

Dr Anderson added: “This flow of electrons and energy through protein-based circuits underpins all life on earth. This project aims to gain a deeper understanding of these fundamental biological processes – some of the fastest known in nature – while providing a route to harness the exquisite nanoscale engineering of nature on our own terms.”

With this flexibility and new understanding, the team predicts that these biocompatible electrical and light-activated circuits will form the foundation for new tailor-made catalysts for green industrial biotechnology, and tuneable protein-based solar panels. Integrating these artificial biological circuits into cells may also provide new routes to biosensors, useful for diagnosis and treatment of a range of diseases.

In addition to Dr Anderson, the academics involved in the project are Professor Adrian Mulholland, Dr Tom Oliver, Dr Paul Curnow, Dr Fabio Parmeggiani and Dr Sofia Oliveira from the University of Bristol. They are joined by Dr Bruce Lichtenstein from the University of Portsmouth, Professor Julea Butt from the University of East Anglia and Dr Amandine Marechal from University College London.

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