Hook, Line and Sinker! Marblar’s Super-Biotin Project

This is one bait you should take.

Illustration of a potential application of Super-Biotin – to image tumor cells with high specificity
Illustration of a potential application of Super-Biotin – to image tumor cells with high specificity

What possibilities could you think of to use a super strong ‘molecular’ hook? That’s what the inventors of Super-Biotin are asking you. This challenge appears on Marblar, a startup that “crowdsources market applications for emerging and existing technologies” as Mr Daniel Bayley, project organizer and part of the Marblar team describes it.

To understand Super-Biotin, we have to take a few steps back and see how old fashioned biotin works as part of a scientist’s toolkit. Biotin and Streptavidin are two naturally occurring proteins that exhibit an extraordinarily strong affinity for each other. Scientists (including myself!) have been able to use this property of biotin to pick out specific molecules from complex biological mixtures.  Sort of like baiting fish in a lake. Only here you get to pick the fish you want in a lake filled with several thousand kinds.

As an example, to selectively pick out molecule X from a mixture, biotin is first linked to a ‘bait’ such as an antibody that binds selectively to X. The biotin linked bait is now thrown in to the ‘lake’ which in this case happens to be a cocktail of many thousand proteins. Once the bait binds to X, streptavidin is used as the ‘hook’ to pull the entire complex (biotin-antibody-X) out of the solution.

Structure of the ‘Hook’ – ‘Super Biotin’ – ‘Bait’ Complex
Structure of the ‘Hook’ – ‘Super Biotin’ – ‘Bait’ Complex

While this technique works quite well in a laboratory setting, an enzyme called biotinidase found in bodily fluids can chew up the link between biotin and the bait protein (antibody to X in the example above) rendering the extraction process ineffective in a clinical setting. Working around this problem, the inventors of Super-Biotin at the University of Edinburgh invented a biotinidase-resistant linker which also retained the streptavidin specificity.

To find potential ‘problems to this solution’, the inventors along with the technology transfer arm of the university, Edinburgh Research and Innovation Ltd., presented the idea to Marblar which created the Super-Biotin challenge. The challenge webpage has a wealth of information that makes it easy for anyone to get started on it.

To sweeten the deal, Marblar is offering a cash prize of US$1,000 for the winning idea. But that’s not the main goal, Mr Bayley explains. “The cash prize definitely doesn’t hurt. But it is the chance to see your idea become an actual product in the market that is the key. Our users are more interested in realizing the promise of science than the cash prize” he sasys.

Additionally, if you like these sorts of challenges, you can find a lot more to feed your grey cells on Marblar. The aim is to get lots of people thinking about a particular project, encouraging as many ideas as possible. “Just like we did for super-biotin, the technology for each challenge is broken down into an easily digestible form so anyone can understand its capabilities and pitch in with their ideas” says Mr Bayley.

Find out for yourself how this works and start ideating!

Form more on the avidin-biotin interaction and its applications you can view this YouTube video from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Photos: Marblar Super Biotin Challenge

Arvind Suresh is a graduate student in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. For his thesis, he has been studying the molecular mechanisms behind uterine contraction during pregnancy. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. www.suresharvind.com

Categories: Biology, Chemistry, Citizen Science

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

Arvind Suresh

Arvind Suresh

Arvind Suresh is science communicator and a former laboratory biologist, he has a Master’s degree in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science. Connect with him on Twitter @suresh_arvind.