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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Researchers to develop precision polymers using synthetic biology

A team of top scientists from several universities, including the University of Illinois, are collaborating to develop a new class of polymers that can be used as advanced materials for batteries, energy storage, and sophisticated lightweight electronics.

This work aims to repurpose the biological machinery for protein synthesis to produce precisely defined, non-natural polymeric materials. The team is comprised of Charles Schroeder, Associate Professor and Ray and Beverly Mentzer Scholar in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Jeffrey Moore, Murchison-Mallory Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois. The project also includes faculty from Northwestern University, the University of Texas-Austin, and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Charles Schroeder, Associate Professor and Ray and Beverly Mentzer Faculty Scholar.
Charles Schroeder, Associate Professor and Ray and Beverly Mentzer Faculty Scholar.

“The ability to make synthetic polymers with perfect sequence control is a holy grail in polymer science,” said Schroeder, co-investigator on the project. “Our approach holds strong promise to enable the synthesis of precision polymeric materials with levels of control that have not yet been achievable,” Schroeder said.

The work is funded by the Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives (MURI) program. The team is one of 23 advanced science and engineering research projects funded by the MURI program this year. The highly competitive award grants $1.25 million a year for five years.

By using biological catalysts, the team aims to produce materials for sustainable, rechargeable batteries that are currently impossible to make chemically. Over the past several years, Northwestern’s Michael Jewett has worked to overcome a critical barrier in making mutant ribosomes, the core catalyst in cells that are responsible for life. The team will leverage this approach to repurpose the ribosome and to engineer the accessory biological factors to make new kinds of polymers. Although the ribosome already makes biopolymers such as proteins like insulin or subtilisin in laundry detergents, the MURI team aims to ‘teach’ the ribosome to make different types of polymers enabled by chemistry that has yet to exist in the living world.

“We are in a new era of biomaterial design,” said Jewett, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and principal investigator on the grant. “So far, the ribosome has been this untouchable biomolecular machine — one that we couldn’t engineer or modify. Now, armed with recent advances in our ability to construct new versions, new applications may only be limited by our imagination.”

Schroeder and Moore will collaborate with Northwestern’s Jewett, University of Texas’s Andrew Ellington, and Georgia Tech’s Eric Gaucher to reengineer the ribosome as a biological catalyst to make novel chemical polymers. Schroeder will study these new precision polymers using advanced single molecule techniques, which will enable a clear understanding of the electronic transport properties of single polymers as a function of their underlying chemical sequence. These materials could have applications well beyond batteries, such as in nanoscale self-assembly, electromagnetic interference shielding, and anticorrosion coatings for steel.

“This opportunity is especially exciting because it brings together collaborators who would not typically work together,” Jewett said. “The most exciting science happens at the intersection of problems and possibility. This award connects interdisciplinary researchers and allows them to play at that intersection.”

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