Self-Assembled Materials Made from Functional Recombinant Proteins

Acc Chem Res. 2016 Oct 18;49(10):2188-2198. doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.6b00337. Epub 2016 Sep 28.


Proteins are potent molecules that can be used as therapeutics, sensors, and biocatalysts with many advantages over small-molecule counterparts due to the specificity of their activity based on their amino acid sequence and folded three-dimensional structure. However, they also have significant limitations in their stability, localization, and recovery when used in soluble form. These opportunities and challenges have motivated the creation of materials from such functional proteins in order to protect and present them in a way that enhances their function. We have designed functional recombinant fusion proteins capable of self-assembling into materials with unique structures that maintain or improve the functionality of the protein. Fusion of either a functional protein or an assembly domain to a leucine zipper domain makes the materials design strategy modular, based on the high affinity between leucine zippers. The self-assembly domains, including elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs) and defined-sequence random coil polypeptides, can be fused with a leucine zipper motif in order to promote assembly of the fusion proteins into larger structures upon specific stimuli such as temperature and ionic strength. Fusion of other functional domains with the counterpart leucine zipper motif endows the self-assembled materials with protein-specific functions such as fluorescence or catalytic activity. In this Account, we describe several examples of materials assembled from functional fusion proteins as well as the structural characterization, functionality, and understanding of the assembly mechanism. The first example is zipper fusion proteins containing ELPs that assemble into particles when introduced to a model extracellular matrix and subsequently disassemble over time to release the functional protein for drug delivery applications. Under different conditions, the same fusion proteins can self-assemble into hollow vesicles. The vesicles display a functional protein on the surface and can also carry protein, small-molecule, or nanoparticle cargo in the vesicle lumen. To create a material with a more complex hierarchical structure, we combined calcium phosphate with zipper fusion proteins containing random coil polypeptides to produce hybrid protein-inorganic supraparticles with high surface area and porous structure. The use of a functional enzyme created supraparticles with the ability to degrade inflammatory cytokines. Our characterization of these protein materials revealed that the molecular interactions are complex because of the large size of the protein building blocks, their folded structures, and the number of potential interactions including hydrophobic interactions, electrostatic interactions, van der Waals forces, and specific affinity-based interactions. It is difficult or even impossible to predict the structures a priori. However, once the basic assembly principles are understood, there is opportunity to tune the material properties, such as size, through control of the self-assembly conditions. Our future efforts on the fundamental side will focus on identifying the phase space of self-assembly of these fusion proteins and additional experimental levers with which to control and tune the resulting materials. On the application side, we are investigating an array of different functional proteins to expand the use of these structures in both therapeutic protein delivery and biocatalysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Catalysis
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Fluorescence
  • Models, Molecular
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Particle Size
  • Peptides / chemical synthesis*
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / chemical synthesis*
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / chemistry
  • Temperature


  • Peptides
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins