Scientists at the City University of New York (CUNY) have developed a new molecular code for creating materials with similar properties to melanin.

The research team was led by Rein V. Ulijn, director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC). The melanin pigment is responsible for skin, hair, and eye colour. This newly developed material is expected to be useful in the development of cosmetics and biomedical products.

The natural colour pigment is said to possess a variety of useful properties including providing protection from cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation and free radicals, electronic conductance and adhesiveness, and the capacity to store energy.

The new materials mimic the properties of melanin and offer control over the biopolymer's specific property expression.

"The amino acid sequence of the tripeptides can be used to systematically control UV absorbance and nanoscale morphology properties of the melanin-like materials."

Melanin is said to be inherently disordered, making it impossible to relate structure to function. Prior attempts for the synthesis of melanin in a laboratory were hindered due to the difficulty of engineering. The CUNY scientists addressed the concern by using tripeptides to create various molecular architectures with precisely controlled levels of order and disorder.

The oxidation of the tripeptide structures was found to result in the formation of polymeric pigments with different colours such as beige and deep brown. Further research showed that the amino acid sequence of the tripeptides can be used to systematically control UV absorbance and nanoscale morphology properties of the melanin-like materials.

The new discovery was based on previous research by Ulijn. The scientists intend to further explore the new melanin-like chemical structures produced, expand their functionalities and properties, and commercialise the new approach for potential application in cosmetics and biomedicine.

The research team has also collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University researcher Christopher Bettinger for better insight into the materials discovered.


Image: Melanin-like polymeric pigments. Photo: courtesy of Matej Vakula/NYC.

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