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European scientists develop technology for protein identification

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Published on Thursday, 19 August 2021

The University of Luxembourg participates in PROTEIN-ID, a research consortium that aspires to create device able to generate a proteins identity card. The newly funded project will develop a method to identify proteins in real time and trace their identity using spectroscopic techniques, artificial intelligence and sensors operating at the nanometer scale.

The device’s capacity could be applied in medical diagnostics, genomics and the identification of biological contaminants, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. PROTEIN-ID is coordinated by the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and involves seven European research institutes and universities. The project is financed with 3 million euros over 3 years by the European Union.

Human proteins and where to find them

The goal of PROTEIN-ID is part of an international scientific effort to obtain a complete atlas of human proteins, the proteome, but with the specific purpose of identifying which proteins are present - and not just encoded at the genome level - in the human body. This knowledge is essential to predict the onset of possible diseases.

The PROTEIN-ID research consortium plans to create a technological platform capable of “seeing” the individual amino acids that make up proteins and, based on their sequence, trace the identity of the protein. Each protein is characterised by a precise combination of amino acids arranged in a chain. For the device it will be sufficient to record the sequence in the chain of only a few amino acids, because machine learning techniques will help compare the recording with the protein database to identify the correspondence.

Dr. Nicolò Maccaferri / Prof. Alexandre Tkatchenko

Ultra-fast Raman technology

The sensitivity of the instrument will be guaranteed by using Raman spectroscopy - a non-destructive chemical analysis technique - combined with a nanometric sensor able to optically excite the individual amino acids using plasmons and reading their response. The device will record the passage of an amino acid that occurs in a microsecond. The succession of response signals constitutes the spectroscopic imprint of the protein, from which it is therefore possible to derive its identity.

At the University of Luxembourg, a team coordinated by Dr. Nicolò Maccaferri and Prof. Alexandre Tkatchenko, will focus on the experimental characterisation and optimisation of key components of this new technology, as well as on the theoretical understanding of fundamental physical and chemical mechanisms happening on the nanoscale when the proteins are floating within an extremely confined and enhanced light field.

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