New Phytologist Synthetic Biology Workshop: SynBio toolboxes for de novo peptide synthesis

Categories: synthetic biology
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: June 26, 2012

As exciting as this research in this post is, to me as a humble traditional molecular biologist the most impressive ‘toolboxes’ were the truly synthetic ones involving no genes at all. Dek Woolfson (University of Bristol) and Samuel Stupp (Northwestern University, USA) presented astonishing work on custom peptides.

The Woolfson group is working towards making a toolbox for building proteins. They chose to work on α-helical coiled-coils because these peptide structures have that essential orthogonality built in – the correct peptides form coiled-coils irrespective of the surrounding domains, which can then be customised to fit the designer’s requirements. The group is now able to synthesise a number of structures using coiled-coils.

from Moutevelis and Woolfson (2009) JMB 385:726 (Click on image to go to paper)

Coiled-coil structures have a huge range of potential applications. The Woolfson group recently published the synthesis of a de novo protein that improves efficiency of collagen folding, and the synthesis of a novel peptide hexamer containing an adjustable channel which is permeable to water.

Samuel Stupp’s group work on self-assembling peptides. They have made basic building blocks, amphiphiles, that condense to form nanofibres. Each amphiphile has a hydrophobic end that non-covalently binds to other hydrophobic ends, an adjustable middle domain that determines the shape of the fibre, and a fully customisable bioactive end domain.  These amphiphiles can be injected into muscle and self-assemble into scaffolds for blood vessels, or form vesicles that could potentially be used in drug delivery.

Neither of the pieces of research described in this post were designed specifically for plant scientists, but both could be applied to plant science to great effect. Do you have a problem getting enough of your favourite compound into the fruit or leaves? Perhaps making a custom channel with coiled-coil structures will help. Currently the defining characteristic of synthetic proteins is that they are chemically synthesised, but once a peptide or whole protein has been designed, there is no reason why a gene cannot be constructed for the coiled-coils or aminophiles. The proteins and nanofibres, which are fully customisable, can self-assemble in vivo and perhaps replace a problematic compound, like lignin, in designer crops.

Of course the ideas in the above paragraph are entirely hypothetical and would require big projects to make them come to fruition. Do you think synthetic biology should stay firmly with chemists, biomedicine and microbiology? Or do you see a future for synthetic or part-synthetic plants – one that is worth investing time and money in?



2 Comments - Leave a comment
  1. […] more immediate practical use to the GARNet community than the technology described here are toolkits presented at the 4th New Phytologist Workshop by Susan Rosser (University of Glasgow) […]

  2. […] plant synthetic biology. It was obvious that plant synthetic biology is not yet as sophisticated as synthetic chemistry and microbiology, and the reasons were implied in many of the talks. Plants are multi-cellular, […]

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