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Protein engineers

06 February 2009

A novel switchable proteinA novel switchable protein

Scientists at Cardiff have created tailor-made proteins with new structures and functions which may have potential benefits for medical diagnostics and nanotechnology.

Dr Dafydd Jones of the School of Biosciences, has led a team which has developed an engineering technique that can change the properties of a protein by joining it with another very different one.

Proteins are one of the basic and essential elements of all living species, and are necessary for almost every activity in the human body. Each protein has precise functions that have diverse roles, ranging from digestion, to vision, to movement.

The protein engineering technique developed by Dr Jones means that normally unrelated proteins can be linked, with one of the proteins acting as a switch to modulate the other, creating new proteins with specific functions. For example, acting as sensors that detect changes in cellular conditions when subjected to a potential therapeutic agent.

"Our approach goes against the standard principles of engineering as it is difficult to predict the best way to link our proteins. Instead we took a lesson from nature- evolution - and created lots of related proteins and picked the one that best fitted our needs. We would never have predicted that some of the proteins we constructed would have the useful properties they do. This bodes well for generating new protein-based switches that are capable of sensing disease states or even acting as components in nanodevices."

The research is linked to a separate project, in which Dr Jones has developed a method to artificially evolve proteins by inserting and deleting parts of the protein. The conventional understanding is that such a process would make the protein unstable, but Dr Jones’ research has revealed that it can actually prove beneficial in some cases. This work has been advanced by a collaboration with the School of Chemistry, allowing for the incorporation of new protein building blocks not normally utilised in nature to instil novel and useful properties into proteins.

Dr Jones said: "Nature normally restricts the type of chemicals proteins can sample. In collaboration with Dr Eric Trippman in the School of Chemistry, we are rewriting the genetic code to allow new and useful chemistry not normally available to proteins to be incorporated. This will open up new avenues for studying biological systems and producing proteins for biotechnological applications. This exciting cross-discipline research is already beginning to bear some fruit."

The research has been closely supported by the University’s Research and Commercial Division, the BBSRC and Merck Chemicals, and has led to the filing of a patent for the technology and several publications in leading journals. Dr Jones has also been awarded a Cardiff Partnership Fund grant to further develop his research.

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