"One of my dreams is to drive a virus-powered car"

By Grant Jacobs 30/04/2011 4


They power countless portable devices, start cars and drive electric vehicles.

Yet they’re not particularly efficient. In research labs more efficient batteries are being developed.


They infect cells to cause disease. We’re forever battling them, trying to find better ways to rid ourselves of them.

Yet in research labs around the world scientists try put viruses to use, as agents to deliver genes, to provide antigens for vaccines.

And, in seems, to make more efficient batteries.

Yes you read that correctly: viruses are being used to make more efficient batteries. Solar cells, too.

In the video below Angela Belcher, who heads the MIT Biomolecular Materials Group, tells of her work using viruses to construct better batteries at a TED event:

Just out from this research group is another paper that describes the latest in this line of work, solar cells (Virus-templated self-assembled single-walled carbon nanotubes for highly efficient electron collection in photovoltaic devices, subscription access only).

I don’t have access to this journal to offer my own account of these projects from the research papers, as I’d like to. (Besides, I’m shattered from working on the house.) You might try an ‘popular science’ account of the new solar cell work at ArsTechnica and an earlier article on their batteries (also from ArsTechnica).

The basic idea behind this work is that you can take proteins that already have some useful shapes or properties and modify them to create something of use to you. You modify the protein by modifying the gene that codes for the protein.

As one example, in her talk she uses a virus that infects bacteria (a bacteriophage) that forms small tubes through a protein repeatedly packing itself together with a spiral of DNA on the inside of the tube — a natural nanotube.

You might then try modifying the portion of the protein that is on the outside of the tube to bind something you’d like to be bound to a nanotube – she talks about randomising a portion of the protein and selecting any of the randomised variants that bound to her target.

This could then be used as a scaffold to hold onto other molecules, or as a template to build something (for example a nanowire).

I’m afraid I’m out of time to work up a full explanation for you, but I hope this brief note and the ArsTechnica articles linked above might give you some notion of what is being done here.

Other articles on Code for Life:

Finding platypus venom

Mapping connections in the brain

The Roots of Bioinformatics in Theoretical Biology

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go”

4 Responses to “"One of my dreams is to drive a virus-powered car"”

  • Wow that’s a fantastic talk and there’s a lot of other excellent research going on in this field. Unfortunately she only talked about the implications of M13 bacteriophage, as there are literally billions of different viruses (in a single glass of water!) to give you a whole different genetic toolkit. For a more general overview of the topic take a look at my talk at http://sciblogs.co.nz/just-so-science/presentations/. Just putting together some detailed description of how this works and where it could take the future over at Just So Science. Awesome post :)

  • TED talks are (supposedly!) for the general public. I have to admit I worried that her talk isn’t really clear enough for that audience – it’s why I would like to have had time to write an essay explaining it myself. I’m not surprised she focuses on just her work and just the one virus – it’s the approach the TED talks seem to take. It’s possibly it’s something they ask the speakers to do (focus on the speaker’s own work, etc. rather that a broad topic).

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