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Chem Biol. 1996 Feb;3(2):113-20.

A 'litmus test' for molecular recognition using artificial membranes.

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  • 1Materials Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.



Sensitive and selective molecular recognition is important throughout biology. Certain organisms and toxins use specific binding at the cell surface as a first step towards invasion. A new series of biomolecular materials, with novel optical and interfacial properties, have been designed to sense molecular recognition events. These polymers, the diacetylenic lipids, have previously been shown to undergo chromatic transitions in response to virus binding to the surface of the material.


Gangliosides that specifically bind cholera toxin, heat-labile Escherichia coli enterotoxin and botulinum neurotoxin were incorporated into a matrix of diacetylenic lipids, 5-10% of which were derivatized with sialic acid. The lipids were self-assembled into Langmuir-Blodgett layers and polymerized with ultraviolet irradiation, yielding a polydiacetylene membrane with a characteristic blue color into which the ganglioside is non-covalently incorporated. When toxin is added, the polymerized membrane turns red. The response is specific and selective, and can be quantified by visible absorption spectrophotometry.


Polydiacetylenic lipid membranes offer a general 'litmus test' for molecular recognition at the surface of a membrane. A concentration of 20 ppm of protein could be detected using polymerized thin films. The speed, sensitivity and simplicity of the design offers a new and general approach towards the direct colorimetric detection of a variety of different molecules.

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