Playing science's genetic lottery
By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
April 12, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Years ago, materials chemist Angela Belcher wondered why an abalone's shell and man-made chalk were so different, even though both are made of calcium carbonate.
Her curiosity led to graduate school projects, a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, eventually, her co-founding of Cambrios Technologies which is looking at genetically engineered viruses to find proteins that will interact with metals and inorganic substances. The company is concentrating on a protein that could enable semiconductor makers to inexpensively insert an insulating layer of cobalt--a procedure that some manufacturers are testing and may use to make 32-nanometer chips by 2010.
"This is the way evolution works. You try lots of stuff and see what works," said Mike Knapp, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based Cambrios. The company is also working on a protein that could help LCD manufacturers build transparent transistors into their screens. "We wouldn't survive as humans if our proteins didn't manipulate things atom by atom."
The company's work exemplifies a revolutionary notion: In the next decade, single-celled animals might be some of the most important figures in high technology. Driving this trend is a small but growing number of start-ups and researchers that are trying to tap the power of the metabolic pathway--the complex chemical reactions inside a living organism that turn food into energy, body parts and waste products.
Biotech companies and food giants have exploited microbes for years: Brewing beer is a matter of harnessing microbe digestive processes, after all, and many modern medicines are based around naturally occurring proteins. But now scientists are trying to use proteins to enhance electronic devices and are devising methods to create proteins, such as genetic splicing and synthetic biology, which is part of what Cambrios does.
A protein dip for chips
Embedding a cobalt layer in a semiconductor now requires vaporizing, electroplating and scraping away metals. But in a process involving a protein manufactured by Silicon Valley-based Cambrios, a chip would only have to be dipped into two liquid solutions to get a cobalt layer.
The key protein in the process binds with copper at one end and cobalt on the other. Chipmakers might start using the dip method with 32-nanometer manufacturing in four years. "It's a high-value, low-volume soup," said Hash Pakbaz, vice president of development.
"The first incarnation was where the protein was a product," said Jim Swartz, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University. "Now we have entered a phase where the protein isn't the product, but a means to an end."
Swartz and his colleagues have isolated an enzyme that uses sunlight to split water molecules. The enzyme--produced from the gene of one organism, helper proteins from another, and liquid extract from E. coli--could produce hydrogen for home heating systems or cars. The process of generating hydrogen is a natural one, Swartz said, but it does not involve living cells.
He is also conducting research on incorporating a protein found in red blood cells into water filters. "It allows water to go through pretty fast, but it excludes everything else," said Swartz, who recently founded a company called Fundamental Applied Biology to commercialize some of his research.
Other academic institutions are working on similar protein experiments. The University of Texas, for instance, wants to use proteins to lay out tiny arrays on chips.
In some ways, companies and researchers in this emerging field are playing the genetic lottery. They are breeding billions of viruses and other microbes, each with a slightly different genetic makeup. Then they try to determine if any of the proteins coming from any microbe will interact in an interesting way with something else.
Although the vast majority of these microorganisms don't yield usable proteins, it does not take much time to produce millions of genetically distinct viruses. Once an interesting protein is identified, researchers can clone the microbe to produce more or reverse-engineer the protein and reproduce it with standard chemical-industry processes.