Enhanceosome protein assembly on double-stranded DNA (Image: Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics Protein Data Bank)

Suppose you buy a jigsaw puzzle, take it home, and shake it for a long time. You wouldn’t expect the puzzle to assemble itself, yet that’s exactly what proteins and other self-assembling biological materials do all the time. 

Amino acids in the body assemble themselves into proteins, and capsids, the protective shells surrounding viruses, build themselves out of proteins. 

“Biology is full of examples of this kind of thing,” says SFI Omidyar Fellow Yoav Kallus, who co-organized a workshop at SFI in mid September on so-called kinetic networks, the myriad, intersecting pathways a system could take to go from raw materials to finished product. 

At the meeting, scientists from several fields sought to better understand how self-assembling materials do what they do. 

The main challenge, Kallus explains, is complexity. A virus capsid might have 60 subunits. If you imagine all the ways you could build the same Lego house out of the same 60 bricks, you’ll get a sense of the problem’s scale – and why traditional approaches to studying kinetic networks won’t help. 

A major goal of the workshop was simply to share ideas on how to confront that complexity, Kallus says. “Researchers who have been studying kinetic networks of particular systems have reached a lot of insights and developed a lot of techniques that could be useful to researchers looking at kinetic networks in other fields,” he says. 

Participants also discussed heuristics and computational methods for designing unusual materials and machines, such as DNA-reaction-based computers. 

“The dream application,” Kallus says, “is to be able to fabricate designer materials with tailored properties using the right mix of building blocks.”

More information about the workshop here.