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New sensor detects rare metals used in smartphones

A new sensor changes its fluorescence when bound to lanthanides (Ln), rare earth metals used in smartphones and other technologies, allowing for a more efficient and cost-effective way to detect these abuse metals. Credit: Cotruvo Lab, Penn State A more efficient and cost-effective way to detect lanthanides, the rare earth metals used in smartphones and other technologies, may be possible with a new protein-based sensor that changes its fluorescence when it binds to these metals. A team of Penn State researchers developed the sensor from a protein they recently described and used it to explore the biology of bacteria using lanthanides. A study describing the sensor is shown online in Journal of the American Chemical Society . "Lananides are used in a variety of current technologies, including screens and electronics of smartphones, batteries of electric cars, satellites and lasers," said Joseph Cotruvo, Jr., assistant professor and Louis Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry at Penn State and senior author of the study. "These elements are called rare earth metals, and they contain chemical elements of atomic weight 57 to 71 on the periodic table. Rare soils are challenging and expensive to extract from the environment or from industrial samples, such as mine wastewater or coal waste. We developed a protein-based sensor that can discover small amounts of lanthanides in a sample and let us know if it is worth investing resources to extract these important metals. " The research group reengineered a fluorescent sensor used to detect calcium, which replaces…

A new sensor changes its fluorescence when bound to lanthanides (Ln), rare earth metals used in smartphones and other technologies, allowing for a more efficient and cost-effective way to detect these abuse metals. Credit: Cotruvo Lab, Penn State

A more efficient and cost-effective way to detect lanthanides, the rare earth metals used in smartphones and other technologies, may be possible with a new protein-based sensor that changes its fluorescence when it binds to these metals. A team of Penn State researchers developed the sensor from a protein they recently described and used it to explore the biology of bacteria using lanthanides. A study describing the sensor is shown online in Journal of the American Chemical Society .

“Lananides are used in a variety of current technologies, including screens and electronics of smartphones, batteries of electric cars, satellites and lasers,” said Joseph Cotruvo, Jr., assistant professor and Louis Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry at Penn State and senior author of the study. “These elements are called rare earth metals, and they contain chemical elements of atomic weight 57 to 71

on the periodic table. Rare soils are challenging and expensive to extract from the environment or from industrial samples, such as mine wastewater or coal waste. We developed a protein-based sensor that can discover small amounts of lanthanides in a sample and let us know if it is worth investing resources to extract these important metals. ”

The research group reengineered a fluorescent sensor used to detect calcium, which replaces part of the sensor that binds to calcium with a protein that they recently discovered that is several million times better when bound to lanthanides than other metals. The protein undergoes a form change when it binds to lanthanides, which is the key to the sensor’s fluorescence to “turn on”.

“The gold standard for detecting each element present in a sample is a mass spectrometry technique called ICP-MS,” says Cotruvo. “This technique is very sensitive, but it requires specialized instrumentation that most laboratories do not have, and is not cheap. The protein-based donor we developed makes it possible for us to discover the total amount of lanthanides in a sample. identify each individual element, but it can be done quickly and cheaply at the site of the sampling. “

The research group also used the sensor to investigate the biology of a type of bacteria that uses lanthanides – the bacteria from which lanthanide-binding protein was originally discovered. Previous studies have discovered lanthanides in the bacterial periplasm – a space between membranes near the outside of the cell – but with Using the sensor, the team also discovered lanthanides in the bacterial cytosol – the fluid that fills the cell. “” We found that the lightest lanthanide lanthanum by neodymium on the periodic table – enters the cytosol, but the heavier does not, Cotruvo says. “We are still trying to understand how and why it is, but this tells us that there are proteins in the cytosol that handle lanthanides, which we did not know before. Understanding what is behind this high uptake selectivity can also be useful in developing new methods to separate a lanthanide from another, which is currently a very difficult problem. “The team also determined that the bacteria take in lanthanides that many bacteria take in iron; they secrete small molecules that bind tightly to the metal, and the whole complex is taken into the cell. This reveals that there are small molecules that are likely to bind to lanthanides even closer than the highly selective sensor.

“We further hope to study these small molecules and proteins in the cytosol, which could be better at binding to lanthanides than the protein we used in the sensor,” says Cotruvo. “Examine how each of these bind and interact with lanthanides can inspire us for how to replicate these processes when collecting lanthanides for use in current technology. “

In addition to Cotruvo, the research group Joseph Mattocks and Jackson Ho on the Penn State include.


Bacterial protein can help find material for your next smartphone


More information:
Joseph A. Mattocks et al., A selective, protein-based fluorescent sensor with Picomolar Affinity for rare earth elements, Journal of the American Chemical Society (2019). DOI: 10,1021 / jacs.8b12155

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New sensor detects rare metals used in smartphones (2019, April 23)
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