Thursday, October 13, 2005

better bouncing through biochemistry

Ooh, as a fan of the superball, I must report on an article in the most recent issue of Nature! (press release)

A lab in Australia has been working on a biological elastic protein called resilin, which is used by insects like fleas to jump long distances (e.g., onto your dog). It has the distinction of being almost perfectly elastic, meaning you can squish it and it will bounce back without losing hardly any energy (3%) to friction/heat. By comparison, the chemical in superballs loses about 20% of its energy with every bounce. The resilin protein has been known for decades, and its appeal (commercial as well as bouncy) is obvious, but no one's been able to figure out how to make useful quantities.

Until a few years ago, when the flea's genome was decoded, and the genes that make resilin were decoded. Then it's a relatively easy step to put the gene into bacteria and mass-produce it, like they do for insulin and lots of other manufactured proteins. The last step, which took a few years of trial and error, was the process for getting the resilin to stick together in the right way. The trick was a catalyst of ruthenium plus bright light, which is fortunately relatively cheap.

The researchers get a doubtless lucrative patent, a publication in Nature, and the adulation of millions of superball fans...

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