Polymer Science Faculty Research

Biomolecule-mineral interactions in the geochemical environment on early earth and in the human body

Nita Sahai, The University of Akron


We worked on four projects consistent with the broad goals of the grant to investigate (i) the potential impacts of mineral surface chemistry and particle size on the stability and viability of cell membranes, bacteria and human cells and (ii) the influence of biomolecules on mineral nucleation and growth. The projects are of relevance to the origin and early evolution of life, biomineralization, medical mineralogy, and environmental biogeochemistry. The freedom enabled by the five-year grant to explore high-risk scientific areas, and the resulting high impact outcomes, cannot be overstated. We developed an almost entirely new field of Medical Mineralogyy and extended our concepts and knowledge-base to the potential roles of mineral surfaces in the evolution of protocells and the earliest cells. These exciting connections to medical mineralogy, and to the origin and evolution of life on early Earth are fascinating topics to the general public and even to other scientists, especially when the links to mineralogy and geochemistry are highlighted. In brief, we examined the stability of lipid bilayers representing model protocell membranes comprised of phospholipid bilayers with mineral surfaces. We found that the stability of lipid bilayers depends on mineral surface charge and increases as silica glass ~ quartz < rutile ~ mica < corundum. In a second project, we investigated whether the evolution of bacterial extra-cellular polymeric substances (EPS) may have been driven by nanomineral toxicity. Results showed that EPS does protect against mineral toxicity, and toxicity increases as amorphous SiO2 < beta-TiO2 (anatase) < gamma-Al2O3. A commonly accepted mechanism for Biomineralization is protein-templated nucleation. We used Molecular Dynamics and Bioinformatics computational chemistry approaches and showed that the random coil structure of a specific peptide promotes formation of an amorphous Ca-PO4 cluster, but not direct templation of hydroxyapatite. The consistency between our Ca-PO4 and previous experimental Ca-CO3 studies indicates that universal principles underly biomineralization processes of relevance to environmental biogeochemistry as well as to medical mineralogy. Minerals can enter the human either inadvertently as inhaled dusts or are inserted by design such as in components of orthopedic implants. It is important to know how the mineral surface properties affect the body's immune system response. We found that adhesion/detachment force of the Jurkat -line of T-lymphocytes increased as SiO2 glass ~ quartz < rutile (100) ~ mica (001) < polycrystalline corundum, and was related to the unraveling of cell surface glycoproteins, and to mineral surface charge. The studies described above have resulted in 23 peer-reviewed publications to date (published or in review or in prep.); one MSA volume and one Elements issue edited by the P.I.; trained five graduate students, three post-doctoral research scientists and 4 undergraduate students; numerous invited presentations at international conferences and at Universities; and numerous outreach activities including interviews on National Public Radio and on Hungarian national newspapers and television at the International Mineralogical Association's Annual Meeting.