Volume 95 Issue 34 | p. 9
Issue Date: August 28, 2017

Skinny nanotubes break aquaporin’s record for moving water

Water molecules slide rapidly through the 0.8-nm-diameter tubes
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Biological SCENE, Materials SCENE, Nano SCENE
Keywords: Nanomaterials, water, desalination, aquaporin
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This computer-generated image shows a skinny nanotube embedded in a lipid membrane.
Credit: Yuliang Zhang and Aleksandr Noy
A skinny nanotube spans the distance of a lipid membrane.
 
This computer-generated image shows a skinny nanotube embedded in a lipid membrane.
Credit: Yuliang Zhang and Aleksandr Noy

The membrane protein known as aquaporin, which shuttles water in and out of cells, has long held the record as the most efficient water-trafficking system. Now, scientists have discovered one that’s six times as fast: a membrane full of skinny carbon nanotubes. The finding could lead to desalination membranes that resist biofouling and operate more efficiently.

In this side view of the simulated nanotube system, water zooms single-file through a small-diameter nanotube embedded in a lipid membrane.
Credit: Y. Zhang & A. Noy
In this side view of the simulated nanotube system, water zooms single-file through a small-diameter nanotube embedded in a lipid membrane.
Credit: Y. Zhang & A. Noy

The nanotubes in the new system are just 0.8 nm in diameter, so water molecules must slide through them single file—a process that speeds the molecules’ transport (Science 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aan2438). Aquaporin also makes water travel single file, but amino acids on the inside of its channel hydrogen bond to the water molecules and slow their transit compared with those sliding along the molecularly smooth nanotubes’ interior.

“There is always interesting physics to observe by just looking at how things are done in nature,” says Aleksandr Noy, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist who led the research. “Then you can go back to the lab and use that information to design new systems and materials.” Noy says that aquaporin was his inspiration to create the skinny-nanotube system and that it “was always the molecule to beat.”

“What is most exciting,” says Zuzanna Siwy, an expert in nanopore physics at the University of California, Irvine, is that Noy and coworkers “have identified a man-made system that is even more efficient than the biological system of aquaporin.”

A movie made from molecular dynamics simulations shows water moving through the inside of a skinny carbon nanotube.
Credit: Y. Zhang & A. Noy
A movie made from molecular dynamics simulations shows water moving through the inside of a skinny carbon nanotube.
Credit: Y. Zhang & A. Noy

Karl Johnson, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies carbon nanotubes for desalination, says that “while this work is of tremendous scientific interest, I do not see how it provides a pathway for constructing membranes that can actually be used for large-scale water desalination and other applications.”

Siwy is more optimistic. There are obviously challenges, she says, such as making desalination membranes of sufficient area and with enough nanotube pores, but she points out that carbon nanotubes are amenable to different types of processing, unlike delicate aquaporin, and should therefore be strong contenders for desalination membrane components.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Comments
Joshua Salley (Thu Aug 31 09:17:27 EDT 2017)
This is very interesting! Could this possibly be used to help people with Aquagenic Palmoplantar Keratoderma? AQP5, if I recall correctly, is faulty due to a carrier protein affected by the cystic fibrosis gene mutation(s).
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