McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis researchers have developed artificial muscles that may be stronger than kevlar. This is made possible through a synthetic chemistry approach that polymerizes proteins inside of engineered microbes, thus enabling them to produce the high molecular weight muscle protein, titin, which was then spun into fibers.
Why didn’t the researchers just directly make synthetic muscles? They wanted to make them even stronger, so the research team engineered bacteria to piece together smaller segments of the protein into ultra-high molecular weight polymers around two megadaltons in size, or approximately 50 times the size of an average bacterial protein. Next, they used a wet-spinning process to convert the proteins into fibers that were around 10 microns in diameter, or a tenth the thickness of human hair. Practical uses in the future include clothing, protective armor, and biomedical applications (sutures, tissue engineering, etc.).
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The beauty of the system is that it’s really a platform that can be applied anywhere. We can take proteins from different natural contexts, then put them into this platform for polymerization and create larger, longer proteins for various material applications with a greater sustainability,” said Cameron Sargent, a PhD student in the Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and a first author on the paper.