It is funny that a molecule (really a small chunk of amino acids) could potentially find so many uses in our world. Yet peptides seem to be doing just that.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins as well as DNA and RNA, and thus are an important part of our biology. Amino acids, however, can bind together in shorter chains to make what are called peptides. Generally, chains that have fewer than 50 amino acids are considered peptides, whereas longer chains would be defined as proteins. Peptides are on the scale of nanometers (i.e. a fraction of the width of a human hair) in size.
The interesting thing about peptides is that their potential uses are so diverse, and we may be just scratching the surface. Perhaps peptides have so many uses because they have been around for so long on our planet. It is believed that peptides may have been part of the "primordial soup" that led to the creation of self-replicating organisms.
However, what we should be most interested in is what peptides can do for us today, and the list of possibilities may be endless. Peptides are very small, which makes them versatile inside the human body. Their size also allows for them to be molded into many kinds of objects. For instance, they can fold into membranes, fibers, films, tapes, rods, spheres and other structures.
So what is so exciting about the ability of different peptides to take on so many different shapes? Well, it turns out that this means peptides can be used for things that certainly no one ever dreamed of before modern times. One place peptides have found use is in the development of cellphone batteries. Have you ever been bothered by how long it takes to charge your phone? That may be a problem of the past. Batteries are being developed that can charge in a few minutes or less. (The company StoreDot claims that the charge can happen in 30 seconds.) The charging technology works on nanocrystals made from peptides.
Scientists have also been able to form peptides into small catalysts, smaller than they previously thought they could. The peptides were able to self-assemble into chains of just seven amino acids in length. This structure apparently behaves in a similar manner to structures that are believed to be responsible for causing Alzheimer's disease, which means we may come to a new understanding of why Alzheimer's progresses.
Peptides also have found a potential use in therapeutic drugs. They could be used in a wide range of drugs, due to their ability to assemble and assimilate in different parts of the body. A major obstacle that was impeding the development of peptide drugs was that peptides take a long time to make, which makes it difficult to test them in clinical trials. However, that hurdle may no longer exist since recently a research group developed a method to quickly produce any needed peptides. This rapid production could lead to peptides being a treatment for cancer or other diseases.
It is amazing that something so small could turn out to be something so important.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student.