Synthetic porous material mimics behaviour of proteins

Researchers from Liverpool University have synthesised a new porous material that exhibits similar structural change and chemical activity to proteins.

porous material
(Credit: Pixabay)

Described in the journal Nature, the flexible crystalline porous material consists of metal ions and small peptide molecules. It features tiny pores less than one nanometre in diameter and can adapt its structure in response to its environment to perform different chemical tasks, just like proteins. The Liverpool team claims this is the first time a synthesised material has been developed that exhibits these type of features.

“These porous materials use the same atomic-scale mechanisms as proteins to switch between structures, which gives us the opportunity to develop new ways to manipulate and change molecules with synthetic materials that are inspired by biology,” said research lead Matt Rosseinsky, a professor of chemistry at Liverpool University.

“This offers exciting scientific possibilities, for example in catalysis, through the design of materials that can dynamically select the structure needed for a particular task.”

Porous materials are widely used in industry as catalysts for the production of fuels and chemicals and in environmental remediation technologies as adsorbers for the removal of harmful compounds from air and water. However, these materials are rigid, unlike the proteins found in living systems. The innovation at the core of the work was to integrate protein-like flexibility into the structure of synthetic porous materials, giving them the ability to perform different tasks in different environments.

The new material can be transformed from one structure to another by changes in its chemical environment. This allows it to perform a chemical process, such as taking up a particular molecule from its surroundings, in response to an imposed change in the surrounding solution. The Liverpool team applied a combination of experimental and computational techniques to reveal the principles of flexibility and activity of the porous material. It is now working on the development of the next generation of functional flexible structures and their potential industrial applications.

The research was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).