Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) report that they have been able to use directed evolution to build not proteins, but synthetic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are used as optical biosensors to detect biological molecules in air, water, or blood. Optical biosensors are widely used in biological research, drug development, and medical diagnostics, such as real-time monitoring of insulin and glucose in diabetics.

“The beauty of directed evolution is that we can engineer a protein without even knowing how its structure is related to its function,” says Ardemis Boghossian, PhD, assistant professor, Laboratory of Nanobiotechnology, Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering, EPFL. “And we don’t even have this information for the vast, vast majority of proteins.”

Her group used directed evolution to modify the optoelectronic properties of DNA-wrapped single-walled carbon nanotubes (DNA-SWCNTs), which are nano-sized tubes of carbon atoms that resemble rolled-up sheets of graphene covered by DNA. When they detect their target, the DNA-SWCNTs emit an optical signal that can penetrate through complex biological fluids, like blood or urine.

The study (“Directed evolution of the optoelectronic properties of synthetic nanomaterials”) is published in Chemical Communications.

Using a directed evolution approach, Boghossian’s team was able to engineer new DNA-SWCNTs with optical signals that are increased by up to 56%, over two evolution cycles. 

Directed Evolution Approach
The starting complex is a DNA-SWCNT with a dim optical signal. This is evolved through directed evolution: (1) random mutation of the DNA sequence; (2) wrapping of the SWCNTs with the DNA and screening of the complex’s optical signal; (3) selection of the DNA-SWCNT complexes exhibiting an improved optical signal. After several cycles of evolution, we can evolve DNA-SWCNT complexes that show enhanced optical behavior. [Benjamin Lambert (EPFL)]

“The majority of researchers in this field just screen large libraries of different materials in hopes of finding one with the properties they are looking for,” said Boghossian. “In optical nanosensors, we try to improve properties like selectivity, brightness, and sensitivity. By applying directed evolution, we provide researchers with a guided approach to engineering these nanosensors.” 

The study shows that what is essentially a bioengineering technique can be used to more rationally tune the optoelectronic properties of certain nanomaterials. 

“Fields like materials science and physics are mostly preoccupied with defining material structure-function relationships, making materials that lack this information difficult to engineer,” explained Boghossian. “But this is a problem that nature solved billions of years ago and, in recent decades, biologists have tackled it as well. I think our study shows that as materials scientists and physicists, we can still learn a few pragmatic lessons from biologists.”

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