The secret of making clothing virtually indestructible could be the same thing we grow out of: sugar.
A recent discovery by the Department of Medicine at the University of Virginia shows how sugar can be used to make almost indestructible fabrics and other materials. Nature found it out a long time ago, but the answer was hidden in bubbling acid baths.
In certain acidic hot springs, even volcanic hot springs, old unicellular organisms that exist under conditions live far too extreme for most life forms. They have tiny extensions called Pili that are so harsh that they resist the numerous efforts of UVA scientists to break them apart to learn their secrets. "We were not able to dissect these things in boiling detergent, they just remained completely intact," said the researcher Edward H. Egelman, Ph.D., from the UVA Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. "So we've tried a lot harder treatments, including cooking in lye, which is sodium hydroxide."
The researchers tried various other approaches before they put their hands up and turned to cryo-electron microscopy, which allowed them to create submicroscopic images almost down to single atoms. What they found was shocking. "There's just a huge amount of sugar that covers the entire surface of these filaments in a way that's never been seen before," Egelman said. "These bugs have found a way to just cover these filaments with a huge amount of sugar and make them resistant to the incredible extremes of the environment in which they live."
You could compare the sugar coating with a hard sugar bowl on a candy apple. The outer sugar bowl is much harder than what surrounds it. In this case, however, the sugars were so stably arranged that even acid can not dissolve them.
"These pili, which are protein filaments, are usually very sensitive to heat, acid and enzymes, but coating it in sugar makes it almost indestructible," explained Egelman. "There is much evidence that adding a small amount of sugar can increase the stability of drugs and other protein structures, but as far as we know, no-one has yet seen this tremendous amount … to the point where anything is almost indestructible . "
People can draw a lesson from the design of nature to make products that are similarly robust, Egelman said. Take a protein like wool, for example, and coat it with a special sugar composition. So you can make incredibly durable clothing, carpets or even building materials. "Proteins are fairly robust and resilient, but with this kind of sugar coating they would be much more stable and more resilient," said Egelman. "They could have many uses."
The discovery is only the latest for Egelman, whose many contributions to his field recently earned him a National Academy of Sciences nomination, one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.  Egelman and his collaborators have published their findings in the journal Nature Microbiology .
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Fengbin Wang et al., A heavily glycosylated archaealpilus survives extreme conditions, Nature Microbiology (2019). DOI: 10.1038 / s41564-019-0458-x
Found: A sweet way to make everyday things almost indestructible (2019, June 27)
accessed June 27, 2019
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