Hecht, a Princeton professor of chemistry, has invented a technique for making protein molecules from scratch, a long-sought advance that will allow scientists to design the most basic building blocks of all living things with a variety of shapes and compositions far greater than those available in nature.
The technique, which Hecht developed over the last 10 years and validated in experiments to be published in November, could prove useful in a wide range of fields. Custom-designed proteins, for example, could become a source of new drugs or could form the basis of new materials that mimic the strength and resilience of natural substances.
The range of proteins present in nature, while great, has evolved only as far as the needs of biological organisms, said Hecht. "Why should we be limited by a mere few million proteins?" he said. "We can now not only ask what already exists in the biological world, but go beyond that and ask what might be possible."
Hecht and colleagues from Princeton and Rutgers University reported the advance in a paper to be published Nov. 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Co-authors of the article are former Princeton graduate student Yinan Wei and Rutgers chemistry professor Jean Baum and her colleagues Seho Kim and David Fela.
Nearly all the internal workings of living things are built from proteins. While genes are the "blueprints" for organisms, proteins are the products built from those instructions. The molecules that transmit signals in the brain, carry oxygen in the blood and turn genes on and off are all proteins.
Scientists have long wanted to design their own proteins, but doing so has proved a major challenge. Proteins are strings of chemical units called amino acids and are often more than 100 amino acids long. When cells make them, these long chains fold spontaneous
Contact: Steven Schultz