Survival of the fittest in materials discovery

Research led by Rein Ulijn, Director of the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC)’s Nanoscience Initiative and Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College, has paved the way for the development of dynamically-evolving polymers that form spontaneously by adapting to their environment, which may lead to a number of product possibilities including drug delivery, food science and cosmetics, the results of which were published today in Nature Nanotechnology.

By allowing these peptides—strings of polymers composed of amino acids—to continuously reorganize their sequences, they will eventually form those polymers that are most suited to the environment at the expense of less favored structures. This method, which is inspired by the principles of evolution, allowed Ulijn’s team to identify a range of heretofore unseen peptide-based materials. While previous research in peptide nanotechnology centered on chance discoveries or painstaking design, the new approach allows for unbiased discovery by self-selection of optimized structures.

“In our quest to find materials based on biology’s building blocks—but which are much simpler–it is difficult to rationally design these materials because there are very many possible permutations that could be explored,” Ulijn said.

“Instead of designing rationally to improve materials, we’ve found a way to autonomously evolve,” said Charalampos Pappas, first author, and former CUNY ASRC postdoctoral researcher. “We achieve this by having components dynamically connect, rearrange and disconnect, resulting in the spontaneous selection and formation of the most stable self-assembling nanostructures.”

The paper, entitled “Dynamic peptide libraries for the discovery of supramolecular nanomaterials,” is a continuation of Ulijn’s research of tunable peptide structures, which have shown great promise in a variety of commercial applications. These include nanospheres which can be biodegradable and could potentially be used in drug delivery applications, as well as nanofibers which form gel-phase materials, that can be used in a variety of applications, including cosmetics or biodegradable plastics that can withstand harsh conditions.

The evolution-based peptide discovery method does not yet cover the full range of chemical functionalities present in natural materials and it is currently a time-consuming process. “These issues can potentially be overcome by automation and miniaturization of the process, which is the focus of current research,” Ulijn said.

Funding for this research was provided in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and research was conducted in tandem with members of Ulijn’s research group housed at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow.

To read the paper, please click here.

Cross-CUNY collaboration results in new materials discovery approach

This paper represents one of the first realizations of a major goal envisioned with the creation of the CUNY ASRC: providing talented researchers from throughout the CUNY system with the opportunity and instrumentation necessary to conduct high-level research and ensure the University takes its place as a major research institution. Authors from the paper, all of whom conducted research at the ASRC, hail from a number of CUNY colleges, including Macaulay Honors College, Hunter College and Bronx Community College.

“The idea that within the CUNY system, talented students regardless of their level have an opportunity to access the top-level instrumentation and facilities we have at the center is part of what drew me to work at the ASRC,” Ulijn said. “This opportunity for students from throughout the CUNY system—at a variety of levels—working together in a team to tackle a challenging interdisciplinary research project… I am immensely proud that we have been able to achieve this within two years of joining the ASRC.”

CUNY’s unique status as the largest urban university system in the United States and its concentration of colleges allows for the sort of interdisciplinary, collaborative research that gives undergraduates an opportunity to be published in some of the top scientific journals in the world.

“The investment by CUNY to ensure it retakes its place amongst the top-level research institutions in New York City is beginning to bear fruit,” Ulijn said. “Having a concentration of facilities and scientific insight in an environment where this group of talented researchers is given every opportunity to succeed—again, regardless of level—will ensure that CUNY generates top-level research outputs demonstrating very clearly that its students are making meaningful contributions.”


The City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) is a University-wide venture that elevates CUNY’s legacy of scientific research and education through initiatives in five distinctive, but increasingly interconnected disciplines: Nanoscience, Photonics, Structural Biology, Neuroscience and Environmental Sciences. The center is designed to promote a unique, interdisciplinary research culture with researchers from each of the initiatives working side by side in the ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that is among the most advanced available.