Developing synthetic routes to polymers consisting of a defined sequence of monomers is a current challenge in chemistry. Proteins are natural polymers, and are specific sequences of amino acids put together easily and efficiently by the living cell. The NSF Center for Genomically Encoded Materials (C-GEM) takes a bio-inspired approach making a sequence of synthetic polymers by re-engineering the cell's systems. In this case, the cell becomes a new translational machine that synthesizes new chemical polymers of specific sequence and length. NSF C-GEM establishes a new, transformative field of chemistry and fosters innovation at the chemistry-biology-materials frontier. The applications of the new materials with novel properties range from information storage to anti-counterfeiting and drug delivery, from environmental remediation to drug discovery. NSF C-GEM engages scientists and non-scientists in a variety of research and educational activities, including improved communication to the public. These education and participation programs integrate research with training to establish a diverse chemical workforce. NSF C-GEM presents a new online platform and data management system, GEM-Net, to promote data sharing within and outside the research team. NSF C-GEM is also developing an online video game that allows citizen scientists to participate in the research process and track results.
The NSF Center for Genomically Encoded Materials, NSF C-GEM, is focused on the challenge of preparing polymers whose monomers and dispersity are defined with protein-like control. Sequence-defined polymers possess extraordinary potential for information storage, anti-counterfeiting, drug delivery, environmental remediation, and even drug discovery, but strategies to prepare them are barely in their infancy. NSF C-GEM's approach synthesizes sequence-defined chemical polymers by repurposing the E. coli translational apparatus. The translation machinery, which normally promotes bond formation between alpha-amino acids, now promotes bond-forming reactions between monomers that are the building blocks for aramids, polyolefins, polyurethanes, and other polymers. The approach demands orthogonal enzymes that acylate orthogonal tRNAs with each monomer, efficiently and in vivo; orthogonal ribosomes that accept these tRNAs as substrates and elongate the products; genomically-recoded organisms with multiple open codons to enable mRNA-templated synthesis of sequence-defined polymers; and high-resolution structural data to deepen understanding and inform design. The project develops the multi-disciplinary tools and technologies that demonstrate the proof of concept of the approach and establish practical methodologies to this aim. NSF C-GEM fosters innovation at the chemistry-biology-materials frontier, and engages scientists and non-scientists in research and educational activities. A diverse set of education and participation programs integrates research with training, establishes a diverse chemical workforce, and improves communication with the public.