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John Innes Centre

Big hit on a small-scale for black-eyed peas

6 March 2006

Contact:
Dr David Evans: 01603 450706/450000
Dr George Lomonossoff: 01603-450351/450000
Media Office: 01603 450641 (out of hours 01603-450000)

What have Black-eyed peas got to do with nanotechnology? As well as sharing their name with a chart-topping U.S. band, Black-eyed peas (also known as Cowpeas) are being used by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (JIC) [1] to grow virus particles that can be decorated with a chemical turning the particles into a kind of molecular capacitor.

Nanotechnology is the study of tiny structures in the scale of 1/100,000 of the width of a human hair and crosses the disciplines of chemistry, biology and physics. This work has been published in the journal “Small” [2] and is the first piece of nanotechnology from the John Innes Centre. The researchers at the institute are using a harmless virus of Cowpea plants because its tiny size and unique structure makes it an ideal scaffold for decoration with various chemicals to give different characteristics, depending on the application required [3].

“This is an exciting discovery in bionanotechnology, at the interface of chemistry and biology, using plant viruses to produce electronically active nanoparticles of defined size” says Nicole Steinmetz, a PhD student working on the EU-funded project [4] in the group of Dr Dave Evans (Project Leader) in collaboration with Dr. George Lomonossoff in the Department of Biological Chemistry, “Future applications may be in, for example, biosensors, nanoelectronic devices, and electrocatalytic processes.”
Professor Chris Lamb, Director, JIC said "The combination of expertise from different disciplines, in this case plant virology and chemistry, is one of the strengths of the John Innes Centre, with long term fundamental research programmes underpinning exciting innovations that can lead to discoveries such as this."

This project is still in the very early stages, but the scientists hope that this groundbreaking research will lead to the development of the technology for use in medical as well as industrial applications.

Notes for Editors:

1. The John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich, UK is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences. The JIC has over 800 staff and students. JIC carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

2. This work was published in Small (2006) 4, 530 - 533. (Publishers: Wiley InterScience).

3. The Cowpea mosaic virus has characteristics of an ideal nanoscaffold/building block. It has a sphere-like structure of 28 nm diameter and its properties are defined. The virus particles can be obtained in gram scale from 1 kg of infected plant leaves. Amino acids on the exterior surface of the virus particle provide sites of attachment for a range of chemicals.

4. This work is funded by the EU Marie Curie Early Stage Research Training Scheme that provides funding for PhD students in the European Union.