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Biogenic Organic Crystals: From Crystal Formation to Genetically Engineered Optical Materials

Project description

Enlightened organisms may show us how to make revolutionary new crystals

In recent years, organic molecular crystals have become the topic of intense theoretical and experimental research aimed at harnessing their unique optical, electronic and mechanical properties for technological applications. Organic biocrystallisation, in which crystals are formed from organic macromolecules by living organisms, could provide a window on exploitable pathways. Many organisms exert exquisite control over the formation of crystals to manipulate light in revolutionary ways. The EU-funded CRYSTALEYES project is following the biocrystallisation process in a model system, using advanced techniques to identify the molecules controlling crystallisation and the genes encoding them. Discovering the recipe for success could lead to creation of living factories producing tailor-made organic crystals for a new era of optical applications.


Many spectacular optical phenomena in nature are produced by the interaction of light with organic crystals. Organisms exert exquisite control over the habit and organization of these crystals to determine the type of optical effect produced by using strategies beyond the state of the art in solid state chemistry. Despite their important role in animal behavior and their huge potential to inspire new optical materials, little is known about these materials. However, recent discoveries of previously unknown organic bio-crystals indicate that many more of these materials will be found and that ‘organic bio-crystallization’ is an emergent field with important implications for materials science. My overall objective is to uncover the strategies organisms use to control the formation of organic crystals, enabling these strategies to be harnessed to develop new crystalline organic materials. A pioneering approach is proposed which entails following the crystallization pathways of organic molecules in model photonic systems undergoing development. The crystallization of guanine and isoxanthopterin will be investigated to reveal the physio-chemical and biological processes underpinning crystallization. Cryogenic electron microscopy, spectroscopy and in situ diffraction methods will determine changes in the chemical and physical properties of the crystals during crystallization. Proteomic and transcriptomic studies will identify the macromolecules responsible for controlling nucleation and growth and the genes encoding them. These bio-crystallization processes will then be artificially mimicked and manipulated to produce guanine and isoxanthopterin crystals with rationally designed crystal properties (crystal habit, composition, size), including an ambitious attempt to genetically programme guanine-producing iridophore cells as living factories to produce crystals with controlled phenotypes, laying the foundations for a new field of genetically programmed organic materials.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 966 000,00
Total cost
€ 1 966 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)