A new way to build membrane-crossing pores, using Lego-like DNA building blocks, has been developed by scientists at University College London (UCL), in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton. The approach provides a simple and low-cost tool for synthetic biology and the technique has potential applications in diagnostic devices and drug discovery. The research was published online on October 2, 2013 in Angewandte Chemie. Membrane pores are the gateways controlling the transport of essential molecules across the otherwise impermeable membranes that surround cells in living organisms. Typically made from proteins, pores of different sizes control the flow of ions and molecules both and in and out of the cell as part of an organism's metabolism. Our understanding of membrane pores comes both from the study of natural pores, and from equivalent structures built in the lab by synthetic biologists. But synthetic proteins are notoriously difficult to handle due to the complex and often unpredictable ways in which their structures can fold. Even minor protein misfolding changes a protein's properties, meaning that building synthetic pores out of proteins can be risky and time-consuming. A more straightforward approach is so-called 'rational engineering' using Lego-like DNA building blocks. Although generally known as life's genetic code, DNA strands, which are chemically much simpler than proteins, are far easier and more predictable to work with than proteins. As such they are a useful material for building nanoscale structures in the lab. "DNA is a construction material that follows very simple rules," said Dr. Stefan Howorka (UCL Chemistry). "New nanostructures can be easily designed using a computer program, and the elements fit together like Lego bricks.
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