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Nature. 2000 Jan 20;403(6767):289-92.

Biomimetic synthesis of ordered silica structures mediated by block copolypeptides.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of California, Santa Barbara 93106, USA.


In biological systems such as diatoms and sponges, the formation of solid silica structures with precisely controlled morphologies is directed by proteins and polysaccharides and occurs in water at neutral pH and ambient temperature. Laboratory methods, in contrast, have to rely on extreme pH conditions and/or surfactants to induce the condensation of silica precursors into specific morphologies or patterned structures. This contrast in processing conditions and the growing demand for benign synthesis methods that minimize adverse environmental effects have spurred much interest in biomimetic approaches in materials science. The recent demonstration that silicatein-a protein found in the silica spicules of the sponge Tethya aurantia--can hydrolyse and condense the precursor molecule tetraethoxysilane to form silica structures with controlled shapes at ambient conditions seems particularly promising in this context. Here we describe synthetic cysteine-lysine block copolypeptides that mimic the properties of silicatein: the copolypeptides self-assemble into structured aggregates that hydrolyse tetraethoxysilane while simultaneously directing the formation of ordered silica morphologies. We find that oxidation of the cysteine sulphydryl groups, which is known to affect the assembly of the block copolypeptide, allows us to produce different structures: hard silica spheres and well-defined columns of amorphous silica are produced using the fully reduced and the oxidized forms of the copolymer, respectively.

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