Spotlight on Student Research: Justin Cole


Proteins represent the gold standard for structure and function of polymeric materials. They contain perfectly sequenced backbones (primary structure) and highly ordered hydrogen-bonded structures (secondary structure) that impart a well-defined three-dimensional conformation (tertiary structure). Many proteins also contain catalytically active sites that carry out a myriad of biologically crucial reactions. My research strives to incorporate each of these bio-inspired elements into synthetic macromolecules.

Single-chain nanoparticles (SCNP) are a synthetic mimic of protein tertiary structure. These architectures are made by first synthesizing a linear polymer with pendant orthogonally reactive groups. Then that polymer is diluted well below its overlap concentration and the pendant groups are reacted. This extreme dilution ensures that the pendant groups react only within a single polymer chain, rather than between polymer chains, creating highly crosslinked unimolecular gels.

Recently, we took a polystyrene backbone that was decorated with pendant benzaldehyde functionalities, and folded the polymer into an SCNP using Passerini and Ugi chemistry. This created a structure that contained sequence defined segments situated within a pseudo-tertiary structure. These sequence-defined segments were then further tuned to create pseudo-secondary structures by hydrogen bonding.  This way we synthesized a synthetic material containing three different protein structural elements.  

Justin Cole is a fifth year graduate student in the Berda Group