Using synthetically modified proteins to make new materials.
The uniquely diverse structures and functions of proteins offer many exciting opportunities for creating new materials with advanced properties. Exploiting these capabilities requires a set of versatile chemical reactions that can attach nonnatural groups to specific locations on protein surfaces. Over the years, we and others have developed a series of new techniques for protein bioconjugation, with a particular emphasis on achieving high site selectivity and yield. Using these reactions, we have been able to prepare a number of new materials with functions that depend on both the natural and the synthetic components. In this Account, we discuss our progress in protein bioconjugation over the past decade, focusing on three distinct projects. We first consider our work to harness sunlight artificially by mimicking features of the photosynthetic apparatus, with its beautifully integrated system of chromophores, electron transfer groups, and catalytic centers. Central to these photosystems are light-harvesting antennae having hundreds of precisely aligned chromophores with positions that are dictated by the proteins within the arrays. Our approach to generating similar arrangements involves the self-assembly of tobacco mosaic virus coat proteins bearing synthetic chromophore groups. These systems offer efficient light collection, are easy to prepare, and can be used to build complex photocatalytic systems through the modification of multiple sites on the protein surfaces. We then discuss protein-based carriers that can deliver drugs and imaging agents to diseased tissues. The nanoscale agents we have built for this purpose are based on the hollow protein shell of bacteriophage MS2. These 27 nm capsids have 32 pores, which allow the entry of relatively large organic molecules into the protein shell without requiring disassembly. Our group has developed a series of chemical strategies that can install dyes, radiolabels, MRI contrast agents, and anticancer drugs on the inside surface of these capsids. We have also developed methods to decorate the external surfaces with binders for specific proteins on cancer cells. As a third research area, our group has developed protein-polymer hybrid materials for water remediation. To reduce the toxicity of heavy metals in living cells, Nature has evolved metallothioneins, which are sulfur-rich polypeptides that bind mercury, cadmium, and other toxic ions at sub-parts-per-billion concentrations. Unfortunately, these proteins are very difficult to incorporate into polymers, largely because typical protein modification reactions target the very cysteine, lysine, and carboxylate-containing residues that are required for their proper function. To address this challenge, we developed a new way to attach these (and many other) proteins to polymer chains by expressing them as part of an N- and C-terminal modification "cassette". The resulting materials retain their selectivity and can remove trace amounts of toxic metal ions from ocean water. Each of these examples has presented a new set of protein bioconjugation challenges that have been met through the development of new reaction methodology. Future progress in the generation of protein-based materials will require scalable synthetic techniques with improved yields and selectivities, inexpensive purification methods for bioconjugates, and theoretical and dynamical treatments for designing new materials through protein self-assembly.