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When Proteins shake hands

7 Mar | By Volker Deckert
When Proteins shake hands
Formation of hybrid protein-nanofibers.
Image source: Dr. Izabela Firkowska-Boden, OSIM/FSU Jena
By: Dr. Izabela Firkowska-Boden, OSIM/FSU Jena

Jena’s materials scientists develop innovative nano-material based on natural products


Jena (19.02.2018) Fibres consisting of proteins are quite common in nature. We find them in spider silk, wood, extracellular space, sinews or as natural coverage of small wounds. The small protein fibres, also called protein-nanofibres, often have extraordinary characteristics, such as high stability, biodegradability or antibacterial effects. The reproduction of such protein fibres is challenging. This also holds for the assignment of specific functions to the fibres. In the current edition of the renowned journal “ACS NANO“ (DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b07196) materials scientists of the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena, researchers describe how they challenge these obstacles and how they are able to produce fibres with new characteristics. The researchers were supported by colleagues of the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology Jena (Leibniz-IPHT). 


“Protein fibres consist of several natural protein macromolecules“, explains Prof. Dr. Klaus D. Jandt from the Otto-Schott-Institute of materials sciences at the University of Jena. He continues ,“nature constructs these nano materials, who’s diameter is about a thousandth of a human hair, by self-assembling-processes. This is no problem for nature, but technologically it is often challenging to replicate such structures. Nevertheless, during the last years, Prof. Jandt and his research group were able to create protein-nanofibres out of the natural proteins fibrinogen and fibronectin. Furthermore, they were able to guide the size and structure -linear or branched- of these fibres. 


Protein-nanofibres with defined characteristics


The next aim of the scientists around Prof. Jandt was to define specific characteristics of the protein-nanofibres to enable their integration as building blocks in biosensors, optical probes, bone cements, or even particles for the transportation of active ingredients. In the process, the materials scientists came up with the idea to create new fibre characteristics by combining two different proteins in a self-assembling protein-nanofibre. Jandt and his team were successful: they utilised the proteins albumin and haemoglobin. The first is responsible for the osmotic blood pressure and the latter is the protein of the red blood colourant, which is responsible for the oxygen transportation through the blood. Both proteins were dissolved in ethanol and later heated to 65°C. Thereby, for the first time, new nanohybrid fibres were formed consisting of both proteins. During the process, the two proteins virtually shake hands. Thus, the combination of similar sequences of both proteins forms a single fibre.


“To provide evidence that these new hybrid-protein-nanofibres actually contain both proteins, was not simple, because only limited options of microscopic methods are able to display the details of the tiny fibres“, explains Klaus Jandt. He adds, “to provide this evidence, we were significantly supported by Prof. Deckert and his team at the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology.“


Prof. Dr. Volker Deckert and his colleagues found spectroscopic evidence on the nanometer scale in the new nanohybrid fibres for albumin and haemoglobin, respectively. The signals were as characteristic for the proteins, as a fingerprint. The researchers employed the so called Tip-ehanced Raman Spectroscopy (TERS). “Due to the extreme sensitivity of the method we were able to distinguish the different proteins even without specific markers and in cooperation with the colleagues of Prof. Jandt we could explicitly assign the proteins“, says Prof. Deckert of the Leibniz-IPHT in Jena. 


Biomimetic principals for future materials


The researchers in Jena see a breakthrough in the production and evidence of the new nanofibres that consist of several proteins. With the innovative fibres it is now possible to construct new, bigger structures with desired characteristics. Networks out of these new nanofibres could be used in future e.g. as new material for the regeneration of bones and cartilage. Prof. Jandt is sure of the fact that ,“therefore, the door is open for a completely new generation of functional materials for medical engineering, nano electronics, sensor technologies and optics that are based on natural materials and construction principals.“ He continues, “these biomimetic principals will decidedly influence future materials.“ The researchers in Jena are confident that this new self-assembling-approach can be transferred onto other proteins, if they contain -in parts- the same amino acid sequences.


This project was funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) under the topic of “New functional materials based on self-assembling protein-nanofibres: production and understanding of nanofibres“.


Related journal article:

Christian Helbing, Tanja Deckert-Gaudig, Izabela Firkowska-Boden, Gang Wei, Volker Deckert , and Klaus D. Jandt: Protein Handshake on the Nanoscale: How Albumin and Hemoglobin Self-Assemble into Nanohybrid Fibers. ACS NANO (2018). DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b07196

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