Never heard of them? You will.
They are set to become huge change agents in the high-tech world of the very near future.
Some of you may have already heard the recent news that doctors believe they can use these compounds to help fight the flu. The major media was all over this angle. And no doubt, it’s an important advance.
Each year, in the U.S. alone, 200,000 people get so sick from the flu they have to go to the hospital. U.S. health officials say as many as 50,000 people die.
The version of synthetic protein that can boost your immune system to help fight the flu is called EP67. Earlier this month, a team from San Diego State University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center tested the substance on mice – with great results. In a paper that ran in the journal PLoS One, they said mice given a lethal dose of the flu survived after getting an injection of the protein. And it could be used to guard against other diseases, as well.
“Since EP67 works by stimulating local innate immunity, it should prove effective against viral, bacterial and fungal diseases,” said Joy Phillips, the study’s lead author. She noted said they still need to test the protein on larger mammals and humans.
There’s a catch – you have to get a dose of EP67 within 24 hours of exposure to the bug for it to be effective.
Still, clearly, synthetic proteins could have a huge impact on public health.
Yet I believe the media missed the real story.
With a hot new field of science known as “directed evolution,” scientists will do far more than treat disease.
They may just redesign our digital universe.
How Directed Evolution Works
The idea is pretty simple.
Genetic engineers apply evolutionary design methods to biological systems. In this way, they seek to “evolve” proteins and organisms that have unique aspects not found in nature. They can have useful applications in medicine, alternative energy, and the like.
Making sense of this new advance requires us to take a look at proteins from a unique point of view.
We most often think of proteins as the building blocks of life. Though small, they are complex molecules that carry out a wide range of work in all of nature. In our bodies, they do most of the work for our cells. We need proteins to form the structure and function of human tissues and organs. They also help us fight disease and store key data about our genes inside our DNA. Without them, there’d simply be no human race.
But in the Era of Radical Change, proteins’ contribution to life is only a part of the story. Around the world, researchers are looking at proteins for the answers to many challenges facing us today.
We are at the dawn of the protein revolution that had its key turning point nearly a dozen years ago. That’s when members of the Human Genome Project first mapped out our entire DNA.
With that milestone in hand, research units around the world have found novel ways to create proteins in the lab from scratch. Most hope to harness them as key factors in fighting disease through biotech.
But a research team at UC Santa Barbara had a radical new idea…
They got synthetic proteins to form silicon dioxide, also known as silica. It is widely used to make chips for all sorts of digital devices – also known as semiconductors. These are the key devices used in all modern electronics, like computers and smart phones. The scientists also used this process to create titanium dioxide, an element used in solar panels.
Team members call the resulting mixture “silacatein X1.” This is a novel material with never-before-seen structures and capabilities.
As I see it, the possibilities for directed evolution are almost endless…
The research won’t stop with silica-forming proteins. Nature offers too many guides for the future of man-made materials. For instance, some marine sponges spin fiberglass that could be put to work in fiber optics. We could create these in the lab and use them for high-speed broadband networks.
And just think of how all this could impact the coming fusion of man and machine. If we can make electronic parts out of proteins, they could find their way into the human body with much greater safety than today’s implants. Our bodies would be more likely to view these agents as “natural” and not try to reject them.
For their part, the California team members still see plenty of work ahead. Their next big challenge is to change the lab process to evolve exact properties like those needed for good chip performance, they said in a report published in a journal called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This approach will begin to allow the same DNA-based evolutionary processes that have created seashells and skeletons to be harnessed to advance human technologies,” the team wrote.
Once again, we see American ingenuity at work. There seems to be almost no problem we can’t tackle.
Stay tuned. Friday I’ll have my “Fascinations of the Month” for you, and we’re looking at some really good ones.