Genetically Engineered 'Rumpelstiltskin' Virus Transforms Gold Atoms into Beads

A team of researchers used a common bacteriophage to manipulate gold into morphing into a sphere on the nano level.
Shelby Rogers

While it's not quite the same as transforming straw into gold, this new molecular editing technique transforms gold into a new shape. Engineers at the University of California, Riverside manipulated a virus that helps reform gold atoms into spheroids. The virus could make producing electronic parts and manufacturing hard-to-find pieces easier, faster, and more cost-efficient. 


"Nature has been assembling complex, highly organized nanostructures for millennia with precision and specificity far superior to the most advanced technological approaches," said Elaine Haberer, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in UCR's Marlin and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering. 

"By understanding and harnessing these capabilities, this extraordinary nanoscale precision can be used to tailor and build highly advanced materials with previously unattainable performance," added Haberer who also served as the senior author of the paper describing the breakthrough.

Using common viruses for uncommon materials solutions

Typically when one hears of materials engineering innovations, they deal with the molecules of the substance themselves. Viruses aren't the first thing to come to mind. However, viruses exist in a variety of shapes and can bind to a number of different molecules. 


While uncommon, this isn't the first time a team has genetically modified the receptors of a virus to bind to ions of metals. By doing so, previous studies found that the ions 'stick' to the virus, taking on the virus's shape and a similar size. This previous research has led to viruses being used in building nanostructures for battery electrodes, sensors, biomedical tools, and even photovoltaics. 

Most viruses have a natural shape that limits what the metals can become. While viruses can change volume in different settings, they typically resist moving away from their basic form and structure. This limits the types of forms that could be created. 

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The UCR team used the M13 bacteriophage -- a uniquely flexible virus. Bacteriophages infect bacteria, more specifically gram-negative bacteria like E. coli which are found in most human digestive tracts. The UCR team picked the M13 as it's already being used to bind with gold to form long nanowire structures. 

The challenge for the UCR engineers came in transforming the nanowires into spheroids -- something completely unexplored by other teams. The resulting gold nanoparticles are spiky and hollow, the team said. 

Exploring other bacterias with this viral 'template'

This research expands the usage and viability of the M13 bacteriophage in nanomaterial scaffolding. Ultimately, the UCR team hopes to pursue just how different they could make these shapes. They also said this  'template' could be applied to other bacteriophages. 

"The novelty of our work lies in the optimization and demonstration of a viral template, which overcomes the geometric constraints associated with most other viruses," Haberer said. "We used a simple conversion process to make the M13 virus synthesize inorganic spherical nanoshells tens of nanometers in diameter, as well as nanowires nearly 1 micron in length."

The complete research and analysis of the genetically-engineered virus can be found in the July 21 edition of the journal Nanoscale.

Via: UCR Today

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