Vikas Nanda (CABM Resident Faculty Member and Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School) along with Paul Falkowski (co-PI, Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers) received a three-year, $1.1 million award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to design synthetic proteins that function as electronic components. Protein-based electronics have the potential to serve as medically safer and environmentally sustainable alternatives to existing devices. Also, proteins can adopt intricate three-dimensional structures on a scale significantly smaller than cutting edge industrial nano-lithography approaches, providing a path to engineering ever smaller devices.

This project draws upon diverse expertise across molecular biology and geochemistry - the chemical transformations that drive biological metabolic cycles on a global scale are catalyzed by sophisticated protein nanomachines that draw their energy from the Sun and electrochemical gradients in the atmosphere, ocean and rocks of our planet. Analysis of the atomic structures of these proteins reveals the presence of modular units that function as analogs of electronic components, such as diodes, capacitors and transistors. These components, almost exclusively comprised of proteins, are assembled into circuits that couple electron/proton transfer to biologically relevant chemistry far from thermodynamic equilibrium. 

The goal of this project, titled “Design of Life’s Transistors”, is to design and characterize synthetic protein-based electronic components using small synthetic peptides. Components will be integrated into simple devices that emulate biological metabolism far from thermodynamic equilibrium. We hope to learn how complex protein nanomachines evolved from simple devices, and develop a palette of protein modules that can be used to make synthetic nanomachines to address challenges in nanomedicine, green energy and environmentally sustainable industrial processes.