Here's an interesting example of a way that synthetic chemistry is creeping into the provinces of molecular biology. There have been a lot of interesting ideas over the years around the idea of polymers made to recognize other molecules. These appear in the literature as "molecularly imprinted polymers", among other names, and have found some uses, although it's still something of a black art. A group at Cal-Irvine has produced something that might move the field forward significantly, though.
In 2008, they reported that they'd made polymer particles that recognized the bee-sting protein melittin. Several combinations of monomers were looked at, and the best seemed to be a crosslinked copolymer with both acrylic acid and an N-alkylacrylamide (giving you both polar and hydrophobic possibilities). But despite some good binding behavior, there are limits to what these polymers can do. They seem to be selective for melittin, but they can't pull it out of straight water, which is a pretty stringent test. (If you can compete with the hydrogen-bonding network of bulk water that's holding the hydrophilic parts of your target, as opposed to relying on just the hydrophobic interactions with the other parts, you've got something impressive).
Another problem, which is shared by all polymer-recognition ideas, is that the materials you produce aren't very well defined. You're polymerizing a load of monomers in the presence of your target molecule, and they can (and will) link up in all sorts of ways. So there are plenty of different binding sites on the particles that get produced, with all sorts of affinities. How do you sort things out?
Now the Irvine group has extended their idea, and found some clever ways around these problems. The first is to use good old affinity chromatography to clean up the mixed pile of polymer nanoparticles that you get at first. Immobilizing melittin onto agarose beads and running the nanoparticles over them washes out the ones with lousy affinity - they don't hold up on the column. (Still, they had to do this under fairly high-salt conditions, since trying this in plain water didn't allow much of anything to stick at all). Washing the column at this point with plain water releases a load of particles that do a noticeably better job of recognizing melittin in buffer solutions.
The key part is coming up, though. The polymer particles they've made show a temperature-dependent change in structure. At RT, they're collapsed polymer bundles, but in the cold, they tend to open up and swell with solvent. As it happens, that process makes them lose their melittin-recognizing abilities. Incubating the bound nanoparticles in ice-cold water seems to only release the ones that were using their specific melittin-binding sites (as opposed to more nonspecific interactions with the agarose and the like). The particles eluted in the cold turned out to be the best of all: they show single-digit nanomolar affinity even in water! They're only a few per cent of the total, but they're the elite.
Now several questions arise: how general is this technique? That is, is melittin an outlier as a peptide, with structural features that make it easy to recognize? If it's general, then how small can a recognition target be? After all, enzymes and receptors can do well with ridiculously small molecules: can we approach that? It could be that it can't be done with such a simple polymer system - but if more complex ones can also be run through such temperature-transition purification cycles, then all sorts of things might be realized. More questions: What if you do the initial polymerization in weird solvents or mixtures? Can you make receptor-blocking "caps" out of these things if you use overexpressed membranes as the templates? If you can get the particles to the right size, what would happen to them in vivo? There are a lot of possibilities. . .