Scientists have recently created the world's smallest antenna to date, measuring just 5 nanometres in length. Unlike its larger 'counterparts', this tiny nanoantenna is not designed to receive or transmit radio waves. But the capabilities it provides provide scientists with a new and precise method for unravelling some of the mysteries of proteins that are constantly changing their structure.
The nanoantenna is made from a molecule of synthetic DNA, a molecule normally containing a set of genetic instructions. This molecule is 20,000 times thinner than a human hair and has fluorescent properties, enabling it to use light signals to receive and transmit information through it.
And these same light signals can be used to study the movement and structure transformations of protein molecules to which this antenna is attached, in real time.
Let us remind our readers that proteins are large and complex organic molecules with which living organisms perform all their functions, from immune system functions to regulating the functioning of individual organs. When proteins do work, their structure undergoes constant change, a complex process scientists call "protein dynamics". And until recently, scientists did not have at their disposal a tool that was ideally suited to study these dynamic processes.
A huge advantage of the new DNA antenna is that it is able to respond to and transmit information about even the shortest phases of protein transformations. "For example, for the first time, we were able to detect and study in real time the function of an enzyme, alkaline phosphatase, and elucidate the subtleties of its interaction with various kinds of biological and pharmaceutical drugs," the researchers write, "This enzyme is involved in the course of a multitude of diseases, including cancerous tumors and organ inflammation."
In defining the limits of the versatility of DNA-antenna technology, the researchers successfully studied the transformation of three basic types of protein - streptavidin, alkaline phosphatase and G-protein. And it seems likely that this technology will work well with all other types of proteins as well.
Researchers have now started working towards further commercialisation of DNA antenna technology. It is understood that such antennas will be manufactured and packaged appropriately and any other interested research groups, pharmacological organisations will be able to use pre-made antennas of appropriate types by simply attaching them to molecules of proteins and other organic compounds under investigation.