Research in one field is oftentimes applicable in another, and for UC Santa Barbara chemist Abby Knight her research is no different.
While pursuing her doctorate at UC Berkeley, Knight created a plastic micro bead that decontaminates water from the carcinogen hexavalent chromium [CI(VI)]. This chemical may sound familiar, as it was the contaminant of the groundwater in the 2000 biographical film “Erin Brockovich.”
“Currently we attempt to solve [contaminated water] by saying, ‘Do not drink this water and eventually it will diffuse’,” Knight said.
However, her beads are a possible solution. The micro beads, each the size of a grain of sand, are coated with peptoids, a class of synthetic molecule that has been modified in order to target hexavalent chromium. When placed in water, the peptoids’ “arms” grab on to the harmful chemical and remove the contamination. In a lab, Knight is able to collect the micro beads and see how effective the peptoid-coated bead was by observing the color. A dark pink bead signifies that it absorbed loads of chromium.
While it may be easy to remove the beads from water in a lab, what remains is finding a way of removing the beads on a larger scale, such as the ocean.
Now a postdoctoral scholar in UCSB’s Hawker Group, Knight hopes to use what she learned throughout her doctoral research in order to apply it to the human body. Instead of removing toxic metals from water, she aims to extract a different metal from blood and develop metal coordinating polymeric materials — organic components used in engineering.
“I came to UCSB to gain an engineering perspective for my work, and the Hawker group is the perfect place for me to do that,” Knight said.
The long-term goal of materials science is to create synthetic materials with structural sophistication and complex functions found in biology, and that is what Knight expects to do here at the Materials Research Lab (MRL) at UCSB with Director of the Hawker Group, California Nanosystems Institute and Dow Materials Institute and Co-director of the MRL Craig Hawker. Hawker is an expert when it comes to materials chemistry and polymer synthesis.
As of now, Knight is working toward developing polymeric materials with unique architecture and both biological and materials applications. She hopes to use natural marine products involved in metal coordination and wants to find more ways of controlling self-assembly of polymeric materials. The polymers and methods she develops will hopefully selectively connect two different metals in the appropriate environment, such as the human body.
“Natural proteins serve as antibiotics in the body by binding to metals like manganese and iron. These metals are required for bacterial growth, so if you remove them, the bacteria die. I want to mimic the capabilities of these proteins and make self-assembling materials that will act as a way of aiding the body’s natural immune response,” Knight said.
While controlling synthetic polymers is still in its infant stages, its applications in the environment and in health will certainly improve sustainability efforts.
A version of this story appeared on p. 16 of the Thursday, Jan. 7 print edition of the Daily Nexus.