The Army Research Laboratory has just achieved a major breakthrough that could lead to transformational equipment for the warfighter of the future. The lab has been credited with creating a new method for identifying synthetic biomolecules that can bind to metal surfaces. That could lead to any number of cutting edge bioadhesives, sensors and “living paints,” as well as something that the lab identifies as “game-changing capabilities to our Soldiers.”
As for the synthetic biomolecules in question, they come courtesy of the bacteria Escherichia coli. Better known as a source of potentially deadly food poisoning, the little bug also has some positive attributes that have been put to work in the clean tech field, in addition to their apparent role in national defense.
E. Coli And Synthetic Peptides
The biomolecules in question are peptides. The building blocks of protein, peptides are short chains of amino acids. The Army finds them interesting because they have strong adhesive powers and can withstand rough or extreme conditions.
The end goal of the research project is to nudge E. coli into producing peptides that are specifically designed to bind to inorganic materials, in this case an aluminum alloy, and to develop a precise understanding of the mechanism behind that interaction.
The project combined labwork with new peptide display computer modeling to reveal how the chemical composition of a peptide enables it to bind to different surfaces, which according to the Army Research Laboratory had never been done before:
The ARL researchers are the first to show evidence that sequence-dependent, structure-function relationships of “designer” peptides with metal and metal-oxide materials contribute to high affinity peptide interactions.
As summarized by publisher Wiley, the most successful peptide has “a highly helical structure and allows for preferential alignment of coordinating groups with the surface of an aluminum alloy.”
E. Coli And The Warfighter Of The Future
For a glimpse into the potential application of the research to Army equipment, check out the Army’s “Maximizing Land Power” white paper produced by the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. It covers some familiar ground in terms of lightweight, portable, scavengable power (see p. 19 of the pdf). It also lists a number of challenge areas in which a cutting edge biobased adhesive could come into play (p.31), ranging all the way from survivability and lethality to waste and equipment lifecycle management.
Let’s also note for the record that relatively few strains of the bacteria are potential killers, while on the other hand there is ample evidence that its role in a more sustainable future is just beginning.
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