Can Biology Teach Us to Design Better Materials?


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a sea urchin spine undergoing repair after breakage


When Joyce Kilmer wrote “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree,” she might have been speaking for scientists. Nature still outshines us when it comes to elegance of design; and it still knows how to do things we don’t – including things that should, according to many of today’s theories, be impossible.

Scientists in the Weizmann Institute’s Faculty of Chemistry look to biology to learn how living organisms create the amazing variety of forms and substances found in nature, and to apply these lessons to completely new kinds of materials. These range from everyday materials with new qualities to exotic nanostructures the size of molecules.

Profs. Lia Addadi and Stephen Weiner have for many years been conducting collaborative research into nature’s strongest materials. Recent studies of theirs, which reveal how sea urchins build their spines and vertebrates build their bones, are leading to an upsurge of new research and possible applications. Other findings, on the formation of the colorless crystal structures that give fish scales their iridescence, might be used to design new paints or camouflage.

Prof. Michael Elbaum wants to learn the secrets of the nuclear pore – the opening in the membrane surrounding the cell nucleus that allows some molecules to pass into the nucleus and others to pass out. He recreates their functions in experimental, man-made membranes with active pores that might, one day, be able to filter poisons from blood or pollutants from water.

Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv incorporates such biological molecules as DNA into “smart” materials. Genetic sequences are fixed onto two-dimensional surfaces, creating dense compartments where biosynthesis can take place. Eventually he aims to create, from the bottom up, cell analogs that can sense their environment and respond; these could be designed for a number of different uses, including biosensors and diagnostics.

(l-r) Profs. Roy Bar-Ziv, Stephen Weiner, Lia Addadi and Michael Elbaum


Prof. Lia Addadi’s research is supported by the Clore Center for Biological Physics; the Ilse Katz Institute for Material Sciences and Magnetic Resonance Research; the Aharon Katzir-Katchalsky Center; and the Carolito Stiftung. Prof. Lia Addadi is the incumbent of the Dorothy and Patrick Gorman Professorial Chair.

Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv’s research is supported by the Phyllis and Joseph Gurwin Fund for Scientific Advancement; the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Nanoscale Science; and the Carolito Stiftung.

Prof. Michael Elbaum’s research is supported by Mr. and Mrs. James Nathan, Beverly Hills, CA.

Prof. Stephen Weiner’s research is supported by the Ilse Katz Institute for Material Sciences and Magnetic Resonance Research; the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science; the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation; and the estate of George Schwartzman. Prof. Weiner is the incumbent of the Dr. Walter and Dr. Trude Borchardt Professorial Chair in Structural Biology.