Meta-Smart: Merging de novo designed biomolecules with plasmonic metamaterials for new technologies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Chemistry


We live in a world in which individuals have unprecedented access to data on their environment, health and wellbeing. This ranges from information provided by fitness bands, to the energy smart meters that are found in every home. However, our current capabilities pale when compared to the sensory abilities found in Nature. For, instance no technology has been developed that can rival the ability of a spaniel for sniffing out contraband. To replicate Nature's capabilities to detect a vast array of stimuli with ultra-sensitivity is still in the realms of science fiction. In natural sensory systems, typically a change in molecular structure (in a receptor molecule) induced by a stimulus, is detected and propagated by a complex biological architecture. While chemists can mimic the function of receptor molecules, it is the functionality of complex biological component to convert and propagate this structural change into a useable signal that is a challenge to replicate. We propose a new concept Meta-Smart, where the initial molecular sensing event is retained, but the functionality of the biological architecture is replicated by an engineered nanofabricated structure (metamaterial). In effect the metamaterial amplifies the chemical signal, converting it into a readily detectible response. Taking inspiration from Nature, the property of chirality will be utilised to effectively unify biomacromolecular and metamaterial properties. To demonstrate the transformative potential of the Meta-Smart concept we will build bio-inspired chemo- and photosensing devices.

Planned Impact

The impact of the proposed research will focus on four main areas: economy, knowledge, people, and society

The "technologization" of our fundamental science will focus on research users, quality assurance for biotechnology companies and diagnostics, from the food industry to medical healthcare. Researchers are pushing towards label free detection as this reduces any adverse label specific effects on the interaction between a target and an analyte being measured while simplifying the diagnostic methodology. The label-free detection market has a forecasted value of $1.7 B by 2018. Our long term aim is to provide a platform for assaying technology for medical and drug discovery industries where key vendors such as ABCAM and Thermo Fisher Scientific have market capitalisation of >£1 B and £41 B respectively. However, it would be presumptuous to assume immediate entry into such highly competitive markets at first instance, replacing a tried and tested methodology with our nascent technology. Therefore our immediate aim would be to provide quality assurance tests to the biotech companies (market value >£220 B), research tools for biologists and disease detecting assays to the food industry. The aims of this proposal to enhance interaction between both, bio and meta, materials and expand on our understanding of the biophysical events will directly impact on delivering a reliable new assay technology for biochemical diagnostics based on the concept of meta-smart. This will enable significant advantages over potential future competitive technology such as that marketed by optical biosensing companies such as LambdaGen, BioRad (Market Cap. of ~£3 B), BiaCore and BioNavis. This will help establish new technological innovation pioneered in UK and push the frontiers of biochemical diagnostics.

The knowledge generated by the proposed work will be communicated through standard routes: papers, conferences, etc. The applicants have a good track record of getting results published in high impact factor journals such as Science, Nature Nano, Advanced Materials, Chem Comm, Nano Lett, Angewandte, and JACS. The pioneering work of the applicants on superchiral fields in (Nature Nano 5, 783 (2010), 500 cits.) is comfortably in the top 1% of all papers in chemistry (according to Thomson Reuters Science Watch). The publication record of the applicants is strong and is expected to continue in this manner with targeting of the top tier journals such with the collaborative work proposed here. The PI (MK) will also communicate results through invitation to speak at international meeting and departmental seminars. In the last 6 years MK has been invited to speak at 13 UK and international Physics and Chemistry departments and has received a further 19 invitations as a keynote or plenary lecturer at international conferences.

The research proposal under consideration here is people centred and career development of the team members a key aim. Career development of the PDRAs will be supported by the University of Glasgow's Researcher Development Framework ensuring PDRAs can access training in a broad range of skills, from research integrity, project management and leadership to collaboration, cross-cultural working, and research impact. PDRAs will be provided with training in public engagement, entrepreneurship, bespoke mentoring, and are encouraged to partake in the Scottish Crucible leadership programme.

It will be attempted to communicate a flavour of the research enterprise and its results to the public. As outlined in the case for support we are seeking funds for a demonstration / exhibit which can be shown at science festivals around the country. The school of chemistry also carries out a range of outreach activities, such as the Slaters Chemistry Day, which this demonstration can be shown.