Functional Amyloids in Nature & Future Technology: Explore Amyloids

Play a Flash game and learn about amyloids in your world: from salmonella to the strength of spider silk, from what nanotechnology is to future technology. The Emergent Universe, an online interactive science museum about emergence.

Make the Fibril Connection

The Fibril Connection

Amyloids, a class of protein-based, fibrous materials, are a key element in many diseases and were thus thought to be toxic. Yet, 150 years after the identification of amyloid materials, scientists have discovered that amyloid fibrils also perform essential functions in man living systems. Recent experiments have found that amyloid fibrils are stronger than steel, as flexible as silk, and highly resistant to degradation, properties that make these self-assembling, nanoscale materials ideal candidates for a wide range of technological applications.

“Are amyloids toxic?”

Are amyloid fibrils toxic? If not, what is their role in disease, and if so, how can they be essential to healthy systems? Evidence from modern studies of amyloid diseases now suggests that amyloid fibrils are not, in fact toxic. Instead, smaller precursors in the amyloid-fibril formation process are thought to be responsible for the cellular damage. Healthy species that utilize amyloid fibrils functionally appear to have evolved highly regulated and/or carefully sequestered pathways of amyloid formation in order to minimize the impact of such toxic precursor effects.

“What are nanoscale materials?”

You have probably heard of nanotechnology – technology based on nanoscale-sized materials. But how small, really, is a nanoscale material? Technically, nanoscale means in the size range of nanometers, where a nanometer is 10-9 meters…uh, right. Ok, think of a meter stick. A decimeter is 1/10 of a meter, written as 10-1 meters. A centimeter is 10 times smaller, or 1/100 of a meter (10-2m). A millimeter is 10 times smaller yet (10-3m), or about the thickness of a dime. Another 10 times smaller (for 10-4m) is the width of a thick human hair. Bacteria are typically about another 100 times smaller (10-6m), and viruses 10 times smaller yet at 10-7m. So at 10-9m nanoscale materials are about 100 times smaller than viruses. An example nanoscale material is DNA. Its diameter is two times 10-9m, or 2 nanometers.

“What’s emergence got to do with it?”

Why are amyloid fibrils emergent? Because amyloid fibrils arise when the interactions between many protein molecules cause them to spontaneously aggregate into long filaments called fibrils. And, as required for emergent phenomena, this self-organization creates unexpected properties of the whole. For example, while individual proteins are highly susceptible to degradation and dehydration, amyloid fibrils are not.

PLAY the Game: Got Amyloid?