Multi-institutional collaboration yields design for highly permeable artificial water channel

A multi-institution research collaboration has yielded a new design for a highly permeable artificial water channel, with potential applications in liquid and gas membrane separations, drug delivery and screening, and DNA recognition and sensors.

Aleksei Aksimentiev
Aleksei Aksimentiev
“The work in artificial water channels is a very exciting area of reseach–high performance membranes for water treatment,” explained Aleksei Aksimentiev, an associate professor of physics at Illinois who deploys computational methods to investigate physical phenomena at the interface of solid-state nanodevices and biological macromolecules. He and his fellow researchers found that the artificial channel tested had water transport rates approaching those of biological water channel proteins, aquaporins, and carbon nanotubes.

The work, conducted in collaboration with Penn State, Fudan University, and Harvard Medical School, yielded the paper “Highly permeable artificial water channels that can self-assemble into two-dimensional arrays,” which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

“Nature does things very efficiently and transport proteins are amazing machines present in biological membranes,” said Manish Kumar, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Penn State. “They have functions that are hard to replicate in synthetic systems.”

Kumar also explained, “The project initiated when our group became curious about artificial protein-like molecules synthesized by the JunLi Hou group in Fudan University. We wanted to know how fast they could transport water. We worked with an accomplished group of collaborators—biophysicists at Illinois, biomedical engineers at Penn State, and structural biologists at Harvard to carefully calculate the transport rate and study the mechanism. We were amazed to see transport rates approaching the ‘holy grail’ number of a billion water molecules per channel per second. We also found that these artificial channels like to associate with each other in a membrane to make two-dimensional arrays with a very high pore density. The most obvious use of these channels is perhaps to make highly efficient water purification membranes.”

Additional contributors include: graduate student Karl Decker (Illinois); chemical engineering graduate students Yuexiao Shen, Mustafa Erbakan and Patrick Saboe; Peter Butler, associate dean for education in the College of Engineering and professor of biomedical engineering; Sheereen Majd, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; and bioengineering graduate student You Jung Kang (Penn State), JunLi Hou and Wen Si (Fudan University); Thomas Walz, professor of cell biology; and Rita de Zorzi, postdoctoral fellow (Harvard Medical School).
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Contact: Aleksei Aksimentiev, Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/333-6495, [email protected]

Mindy Krause, communications strategist, Biomedical Engineering I Chemical Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University, 814/867-6225, [email protected]

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