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£4.9m award to investigate pioneering biological electronics

30 January 2022

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Researchers from the University of East Anglia are part of a £4.9 million project to investigate how electrons and energy flow through biological molecules by building artificial protein-based wires and circuits.

The five-year award comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the UK’s largest bioscience funder, as part of its Strategic Longer and Larger (sLoLa) scheme.

The national project, led by the University of Bristol, promises new ‘green’ catalysts, and biomolecular components for future technologies in biological electronics and engineering biology.

The initiative brings together an interdisciplinary team of academics from UEA, Bristol, University College London and the University of Portsmouth – with complementary expertise in protein design, electron transfer, biomolecular simulation, synthetic chemistry and ultrafast spectroscopy.

Dr Ross Anderson from the University of Bristol and project lead said: “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.”

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.
Prof Julea Butt, from UEA’s School of Chemistry and School of Biological Sciences, added: “The flow of electrons and energy through protein-based circuits underpins all life on earth. Molecular structures of the proteins involved are being revealed with ever increasing detail.

“This project will test our understanding of how these proteins actually work. Poorly understood features will be clarified providing exciting opportunities to design tailor-made components with wide-ranging properties.”

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.

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.

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