Title: Advancing the mechanical properties of protocellular materials via the assembly of protocell units with bespoke sizes and shapes
Principal Investigator: Pierangelo Gobbo
Institution: Department of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Trieste (Italy)
Partner involved: Istituto di Ricerca Pediatrica Citta Della Speranza (IRP)
The construction of synthetic cells or protocells from inanimate molecular building blocks is one of the grand challenges of our time. In the past decade, researchers in the emerging field of bottom-up synthetic biology have developed different models of materials-based protocells and engineered them to mimic one or more abilities of biological cells, such as information transcription and translation, chemical signalling, adhesion, and enzyme-mediated metabolism. While research thus far has been focused on increasing the levels of biofunctionality and autonomy of individual protocells, the Gobbo Group started to establish an emerging frontier in bottom-up synthetic biology by pioneering scientific advancements towards the organisation of protocells into adaptive and self-regulating interconnected networks, termed protocellular materials (PCMs), that are chemically engineered to emulate living tissues.
The main protocell model utilised by the Gobbo Group to fabricate PCMs is the adhesive proteinosome. These are microcapsules self-assembled from a protein-polymer nanoparticle and are endowed with either interfacial azide or strained alkyne functional groups, which allow the proteinosomes to adhere to one another and assemble the PCMs. Our general strategy to fabricate these adhesive proteinosomes is based on the Pickering emulsion technique and on the manual shaking of a vial. Although this is very convenient because it is simple and fast to perform, it also generates proteinosomes with a broad size distribution. This hinders an effective packing of the adhesive proteinosomes and leads to the generation of PCMs with defects and inhomogeneities, making it difficult to control the mechanical properties of the biomimetic material.
The objective of the researcher will be to develop novel microfluidic platforms for the high-throughput generation of adhesive proteinosomes in oil with specific sizes and shapes. These will be used to advance the mechanical properties of PCMs and to study how these depend on the structural properties of the protocell building blocks.
A possible route to achieve this ambitious objective is to combine the microfluidic protocell fabrication with a chemical crosslinking strategy that is compatible with the Pickering emulsion technique to obtain adhesive proteinosomes in oil endowed with a polymeric cytoskeleton. The researcher will have the support of the group on the development of this chemical crosslinking chemistry, and on the fabrication and characterisation of the adhesive proteinosomes and PCMs.
The researcher will join a highly dynamic and interdisciplinary research group with important ties with the University of Bristol (UK), the University of Western Ontario (Canada), and the University of Padua (Italy), where a research placement could be organized. Through this project the researcher will develop skills in synthetic chemistry, soft materials chemistry, polymer and nanomaterials synthesis and characterization, and chemical biology. The designed materials will be characterized using state-of-the-art spectroscopy (multinuclear magnetic resonance, FT-IR, UV-vis, and Raman spectroscopies) and microscopy techniques (brightfield, fluorescence, electron, and atomic force microscopies). The mechanical properties (Young’s modulus and viscoelasticity) of proteinosomes and PCMs will be characterised using a state-of-the-art FT-MTA03 micro-indenter. The researcher will also develop other important skills such as computer coding in Python, scientific illustration, grant writing, and leadership.
This 3-year project is expected to start on the 1st March 2023, and the position will soon be opened in the online portal of the University of Trieste. Researchers interested in receiving more information on this research opportunity should contact the PI via email as soon as possible (firstname.lastname@example.org). They should attach their CV and explain (i) the reason for their interest in the project, and (ii) how their previous research experience could contribute to the project’s success.
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