Health/Life Sciences

Univ. of Washington researchers design and construct customized machines from proteins

Design of protein rotors made by Univ. of Washington researchers at the Institute for Protein Design. (IPD Image)

The scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design are on a roll lately. They won Science magazine’s “Breakthrough of the Year” award, published a way to make sleek drug-like proteins, and spinouts including Cyrus Biotechnology and A-Alpha Bio keep raising money and forging partnerships.

Now the researchers recently known for their compact designs are going big. In a study in Science Thursday, they design and build custom rotors made out of proteins. These are protein machines; the axle and rotor assemblies are mechanically coupled.

And though they are super tiny from a human perspective — each is a billion times smaller than a poppy seed — they are big in the protein world. Such designs have the potential to take on some challenging jobs.

“One of our goals is to create nanomachines that might one day circulate through the blood and autonomously remove unwanted plaques or even cancer cells,” said UW biochemist Alexis Courbet in an IPD press release, referring to plaques in the arteries that cause heart disease. “We know that very complex machines can be assembled from simple parts,” she added.

Using electron microscopy to visualize the machines, the researchers found that their protein systems could fold into the mechanism they had designed computationally.  

The body already makes some of its own machines, such as those that synthesize proteins or control cell division. But the new findings open the door to more possibilities, paving the way for bespoke machines to do new jobs, augment existing functions, or even perform biological or industrial operations outside the body.

Courbet, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of IPD head David Baker, led the study along with Jesse Hansen, a recent graduate student in UW associate professor of biochemistry Justin Kollman. Scientists in the lab of UW biochemistry professor David Veesler were also involved in visualizing the machines on the electron microscope.

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