A team of researchers from Rice University has won a $5 million grant from the Department of Defense (DOD) to invent next-generation tools for the modern bioengineer and life scientist that can rapidly identify proteins and viruses in incredibly minute detail.
The Rice scientists plan to develop a multimodality spectroscope for nanoscale optical imaging of the structure and function of peptides, proteins and viruses in their native environment.
"Our approach is based on applying the newly developed tools in the emerging field of plasmon-based nanophotonics to dramatically enhance the sensitivity of the three most useful optical probes of biomolecules," said principal investigator Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and professor of chemistry at Rice.
Halas and colleagues want to zero in on specific details of peptides, proteins and viruses with an imaging system that can selectively enhance each of several types of nanoscale measurements. The nanophotonic components they develop will enable them to increase the sensitivity and signal strength of each measurement, ultimately providing a comprehensive picture of a protein or virus.
The system will require developing three instruments:
- nanopatterned substrates for rapid identification of proteins, peptides and viruses
- a scanning probe instrument to study membrane proteins and viral coats
- an integrated "superlens" microscope and spectral probe
Halas said plasmon-based nanophotonics can focus light far below the diffraction limit of conventional optics, potentially enabling optical spectroscopic problems that might ultimately resolve protein structure at the single-molecule level. This all-optical strategy will also permit the study of biomolecular function, such as protein folding.
"The research thrust of this initiative will also enable the development of new tools with exceedingly broad applications, ranging from molecular-level diagnosis of disease to chemical detection and biodetection for homeland security," Halas said.
This project will build on the infrastructure of the Rice Laboratory for Nanophotonics. New graduate courses will be developed that address the theoretical and experimental aspects of nanoscale instrument component design and fabrication and, eventually, instrument use for life scientists.