From steel beams to plastic Lego bricks, building blocks come in many materials and all sizes. Today, science has opened the way to manufacturing at the nanoscale with biological materials. Potential applications range from medicine to optoelectronic devices.
In a paper published in Soft Matter, September 2013, scientists announced their discovery of a two-dimensional crystalline structure assembled from the outer shells of a virus. A virus consists of a protein shell protecting an interior consisting of either DNA or RNA.
"We are excited about the potential of virus-like particles as building blocks for creating new nanostructures," said the paper's lead author, Masafumi Fukuto, a physicist in the Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory. "For the particular virus that we studied, we discovered two new forms of 2D crystals that are distinct from previously observed hexagonal and square crystals."
The team used as their model system the turnip yellow mosaic virus (TYMV), which infects cruciferous vegetables like cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli. TYMV's protein shell resembles a soccer ball, which is characterized by a set of many axes with rotational symmetry, including two-fold axes between a pair of hexagons, three-fold axes through the center of hexagons, and five-fold axes through pentagons. This is known as icosahedral symmetry: all 20 hexagons are identical and all 12 pentagons are identical.
Fukuto described their work as new because it focuses on the structural diversity in the 2D arrays that arise from the constituent particle's high symmetry and regular shape. "Viruses have been used in previous studies of self-assembly, but in nearly all of those studies, the virus particles were treated as spheres and the ordered 2D arrays observed were hexagonal lattices," he said. "Second, this work is unique for demonstrating a rational approach to 2D crystallization that is based on controlling the interactions of virus particles, which occur at the surface of an aqueous solution where the 2D arrays are formed."