In a new study, researchers at Arizona State University have documented that a particular protein known as alphaVbeta3 has the ability to conduct electricity. Proteins serve as building blocks for cells, but until now, none have been observed conducting electricity. “If it’s true, it’s amazing,” said lead researcher Stuart Lindsay, according to Science Daily. “What this paper is mainly testing out are all the alternative explanations of our data, and ruling out all of the artifacts.” In the past four years since their initial discovery, the team at ASU, whose work was published in the journal Nano Futures, has been vigilant in checking and rerunning the experiment to determine if there was an alternative explanation. Nonetheless, the most likely conclusion remains that the protein was conducting electricity.
The research team first began the work that led to their shocking discovery several years ago when experimenting with DNA and amino acid readers developed by Lindsay, who is a biophysicist and ASU Regents’ Professor. These DNA readers incorporate a technology known as recognition tunneling, which traps individual molecules between electrodes. Curious as to how a whole protein would react to such a process, the team placed the glue-like integrin protein domain alphaVbeta3 and found that it demonstrated “remarkably high electronic conductance.” Through further experimentation and research, the team determined that the protein could become either an electrical conductor or an electrical insulator based on electrical fluctuations. “In our experiments, we were seeing this weird behavior in this huge protein conducting electricity, but it is not static. It’s a dynamic thing,” said Lindsay. “Below a certain bias, it’s just an insulator, but when the fluctuations start kicking in, they are huge.”
The electrically conductive protein may open up an entirely new way of understanding proteins, how they may be used in nanotechnology, and how treatment for protein-related diseases might be improved. After years of experiments and questions, the team remains curious but cautious. “I believe the data now, but it’s only one protein so far,” said Lindsay. More work will be required before this phenomenon can be harnessed in the medical field and beyond.
Lead image via Depositphotos, others via Weisi Song/Biodesign Institute/Arizona State University and Depositphotos