Nanomaterials from Nature
Akif Tezcan, University of California, San Diego
Self-assembly of matter and the ensuing emergence of new properties lie at the heart of life’s complexity. Self-assembly processes occur at all length scales ranging from the arrangement of subatomic particles into atoms and molecules at the picometer length scale to the swarming of birds over hundreds of meters. One particularly important length scale–at least to chemists, biologists and materials scientists–is the nanometer to micrometer range, where atoms and small molecules arrange into larger ones to create biological materials (proteins, DNA, sugar polymers, lipid membranes) with an astonishing jump in structural and functional sophistication. These bio-nanomaterials essentially are the primary drivers of life, combining in a pre-programmed, yet evolvable fashion to create autonomous organisms. The common goal shared by many scientific disciplines is not only to understand the fundamental design principles of these bio-nanomaterials, but also to utilize them to their fullest extent in technological applications and to recreate or even improve upon them through synthesis. This session on “Nanomaterials from Nature” will cover all of these research objectives: 1) understanding the structural/physical basis of self-assembled nanomaterials such as melanosomes that lead to coloration in bird feathers (Shawkey), 2) exploring the technological utility of self-assembled cellulose nanofibers (Fahma), and 3) the construction of self-assembled protein architectures with emergent properties (Tezcan). These three topics, though very disparate at first sight, will illustrate how much functional diversity can arise from the spatial arrangement of a small group of elements (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc.) at the nanoscale.