Mind & Matter


Viral Manufacturing

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New virus-based materials reveal different textures and properties for reflecting light. Credit: University of California at Berkeley


One of the fascinating outcomes of nanotechnological research is the creation of tiny building blocks that can self-assemble based on a variety of pre-programmed traits. University of California at Berkeley scientists have recently revealed a method to direct natural building blocks to assemble in predictable ways. The researchers’ technique employs harmless viruses called M13 phages to act as structural building modules for new materials. By modifying environmental conditions, the scientists caused the viruses to self-assemble into surfaces exhibiting a variety of traits—from simple ridge structures to complex interlocking patterns.

According to lead Berkeley bioengineer Seung-Wuk Lee, "We are very curious how nature can create many diverse structures and functions from single structural building blocks, such as collagens for animals and celluloses for plants. We have thought that periodic changes in cell activity--such as from day to night, or summer to winter--cause cells to secrete different amounts of macromolecules into confined and curved micro-environments, which might play critical roles in the formation of such sophisticated structures. We believe that biological helical nanofiber structures play a critical role in that process, yet for collagen and cellulose, it has proven quite difficult to engineer their chemical and physical properties to study their assembly process. Therefore, we have been looking for new, helical engineering materials."




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.