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Engineered proteins will lead to 'synthetic biology'

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University Medical Center biochemists have developed a computational method to design proteins that can specifically detect a wide array of chemicals from TNT to brain chemicals involved in neurological disorders. In a paper in the May 8, 2003, issue of the journal Nature, they demonstrate the breadth of their design method, and also that such sensor proteins can be re-incorporated into cells to activate cellular signaling and genetic pathways.

The researchers said their achievement constitutes an important step toward a new technology of "synthetic biology," in which scientists construct tailor-made organisms for a variety of tasks, including as "biological sentinels." Such sentinels could find wide use in medical and environmental applications, said the paper's senior author, Associate Professor of Biochemistry Homme Hellinga, Ph.D.

"You could imagine a bacterium engineered to respond to TNT by fluorescing that could be used to detect mines for humanitarian demining operations," he said. "Also, one might develop a plant whose cells would change its color in response to a pollutant. Such bushes could be planted around chemical facilities to detect groundwater pollution from the facility.

"Such scenarios might sound like something out of science fiction, but they are entirely feasible over the long term using computational design approaches to create sensor proteins," he said.

Hellinga is already developing a glucose-sensing protein that could be used as the basis for a monitor -- and ultimately an artificial pancreas -- for people with diabetes. Also, the TNT-sensing protein is intended to provide free-roaming underwater robots with the capability of "sniffing" a plume of TNT emanating from unexploded ordnance, tracking it to its source, to aid the U.S. Navy's cleanup program.

The scientists' research is supported by the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Ag
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Contact: Dennis Meredith
dennis.meredith@duke.edu
919-681-8054
Duke University Medical Center
7-May-2003


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