Protein-based materials, toward a new level of structural control
Through billions of years of evolution nature has created and refined structural proteins for a wide variety of specific purposes. Amino acid sequences and their associated folding patterns combine to create elastic, rigid or tough materials. In many respects, nature’s intricately designed products provide challenging examples for materials scientists, but translation of natural structural concepts into bio-inspired materials requires a level of control of macromolecular architecture far higher than that afforded by conventional polymerization processes. An increasingly important approach to this problem has been to use biological systems for production of materials. Through protein engineering, artificial genes can be developed that encode protein-based materials with desired features. Structural elements found in nature, such as β-sheets and α-helices, can be combined with great flexibility, and can be outfitted with functional elements such as cell binding sites or enzymatic domains. The possibility of incorporating non-natural amino acids increases the versatility of protein engineering still further. It is expected that such methods will have large impact in the field of materials science, and especially in biomedical materials science, in the future.