University of Pittsburgh
August 17, 2004

Pitt Scientists Studying How Synthetic, Biological Molecules Interact

Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—Smaller, more flexible computers…clothing that would monitor its wearer's health…those are among the products that might eventually emerge from basic research by two University of Pittsburgh professors and their colleagues who are studying chemical and biological self-assembly processes.

Pitt professors Anna Balazs and Gilbert Walker are among a group of researchers who have been awarded a $2.8 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation's Collaborative Research in Chemistry Program (CRC) to study chemical and biological self-assembly.

Balazs, who is the Robert Von der Luft Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in Pitt's School of Engineering, and Walker, an associate professor in the University's Department of Chemistry, are working with scientists from the University of Massachusetts, NASA, and IBM Almaden to create unique new materials by exploiting synergistic interactions that arise when two distinct self-assembly processes occur simultaneously in one system. Researchers are working with two components: chaperonin proteins that self-assemble into fibers, bundles, or sheets, and synthetic block copolymers that form lamellar, cylindrical, spherical, and more complicated phases. By linking one phase to—or embedding it in—another, one self-organization process can influence the other and lead to novel assemblies.

"Understanding how synthetic molecules interact with biological molecules is essential to biomaterials and biosensors," said Balazs. "Potential applications of this research include antimicrobial coatings, responsive materials, drug delivery, and biomolecular electronics."

Gilbert added, "By miniaturizing devices, our research could lead to smaller, more flexible computers and clothing that would monitor the health of the person wearing it."

Other scientists involved in the project include Todd Emrick and Thomas Russell of the University of Massachusetts, Craig Hawker of IBM Almaden, and Linda Molnar and Jonathan Trent of NASA.