Simplicity is crucial to design optimization at nanoscale

February 3, 2009

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

MIT researchers who study the structure of protein-based materials with the aim of learning the key to their lightweight and robust strength have discovered that the particular arrangement of proteins that produces the sturdiest product is not the arrangement with the most built-in redundancy or the most complicated pattern. Instead, the optimal arrangement of proteins in the rope-like structures they studied is a repeated pattern of two stacks of four bundled alpha-helical proteins.

This composition of two repeated hierarchies (stacks and bundles) provides great strength—the ability to withstand mechanical pressure without giving way—and great robustness—the ability to perform mechanically, even if flawed. Because the alpha-helical protein serves as the building block of many common materials, understanding the properties of those materials has been the subject of intense scientific inquiry since the protein's discovery in the 1940s.

In a paper published in the Jan. 27 online issue of Nanotechnology, Markus Buehler and Theodor Ackbarow describe a model of the protein’s performance, based on m