Scientists across the City University of New York (CUNY) have created the first successful process for developing materials that mimic the properties of melanin — the pigments that give color to skin, hair, and eyes — according to a paper published in the journal Science. The discovery could enable the development of novel cosmetic, skin care, and biomedical products.
Researchers have only begun to understand the broad functional range of melanin, but they have already identified a number of very useful qualities, including providing protection from cancer-causing UV radiation and free radicals, enabling electronic conductance and adhesiveness, and having the capacity to store energy. A new protocol developed by researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), at the Graduate Center, CUNY (GC) will allow scientists to produce materials that mimic the properties of melanin, and it will provide unprecedented control over expressing specific properties.
To produce these materials, researchers had to overcome a major molecular challenge. Unlike other biopolymers, such as DNA and proteins, where a direct link exists between the polymers’ ordered structures and their properties, melanin is inherently disordered, so directly relating structure to function is not possible. As a result, laboratory-based synthesis of melanin has been thwarted by the difficulty of engineering its disorderly molecular structure.
Principal investigator Rein V. Ulijn, director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the ASRC, and his team solved the dilemma by using tripeptides — proteins consisting of just three amino acids — to produce a range of molecular architectures with precisely controlled levels of order and disorder. When those peptide structures oxidized, they produced polymeric pigments with a range of colors, from light beige to deep brown.
Lead author Ayala Lampel, a postdoctoral fellow in the Ulijn Lab, explained that the tripeptide sequences that the researchers discovered yielded templates that the team used to produce melanin-like materials featuring a range of variable properties such as UV absorbance and energy storage capacity.
Ulijn, who is the Albert Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College and a member of the biochemistry and chemistry doctoral faculty at the GC, and his team will now turn their attention to expanding the resulting functionalities and properties of the melanin-like materials they produce and pursuing commercialization of the new technology, which includes near-term possibilities in cosmetics and biomedicine.
Read the press release.