Making noodles from a virus
Scientists in the US have used a common virus to produce materials that resemble skin and bone. In addition to providing new insights into how such materials develop in the natural world, the work also brings synthetic production of tissue in the laboratory closer to reality.
In nature, completely different materials are often assembled from many copies of the same basic molecule such as a protein. Collagen type I, for instance, is a protein molecule that can combine with various other chemicals to form skin, bone or even eye tissue. This process is called self-templating because individual molecules are not assembled according to an external template. Instead, thermodynamic factors such as temperature and solution concentration are controlled to ensure that the desired configuration is the one that is energetically favoured.
Scientists are keen to mimic these processes – but the extreme sensitivity to thermodynamic factors that drives self-templating makes such molecules extremely difficult to work with in the lab. Indeed, it remains a mystery how nature can achieve the precision control that has so far eluded the laboratory chemist.