A group at CNRS in France has developed ultra-high precision synthetic polymers with precisely controlled chain lengths and monomer sequences that can store data and so be used to provide traceability and fight counterfeit products.
Counterfeiting of medical devices for example is a significant problem. The World Health Organization estimates that more than eight percent of the medical devices in circulation are counterfeits and the group is building and inserting sequence-defined polymers in medical devices like ocular implants. The polymers can be extracted later and identified by tandem mass spectroscopy, requiring the new test techniques.
“When you can store code in a molecule, you can imagine that with a single molecule you can write something, such as the name of a company, a batch number or production date,” said Jean-François Lutz, research director at the Fench research group CNRS, deputy director of the Institut Charles Sadron, and head of the Precision Macromolecular Chemistry group. “You have a molecule that you can directly blend with various materials, such as plastics or ceramics. We could put the molecule in the screen of a smartphone, a medical device or an implant in the body.”
The researchers are presenting their results today at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition in Florida.
“There are basically two types of polymers,” says Lutz. “One type is plastic, which is made by humans. The other type is called a biopolymer, and it is a much more defined molecule. In fact, humans are mostly constructed with polymers — DNA and proteins. The purpose of our work is to fill in the gap — to make synthetic polymers using biological inspiration.”
Lutz and his group at the Institut Charles Sadron have been working on building synthetic molecules with the same precision and uniformity as biological macromolecules. “We got the initial inspiration from DNA, which is a polymer made with four monomers: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine,” said Lutz. “Although DNA is a polymer that codes for the very information that makes us human — an important achievement — it is really not the best structure for many other things. We thought that maybe we could make a polymer that is just as information-rich, but enhance the structure so it could be used for a variety of applications.”
The group constructs its synthetic polymers with fully controlled primary structures using solid-phase iterative chemistry, a process that was originally developed to make peptides, or short chains of proteins. The precisely tailored polymers can be used for data-storage applications where each monomer or subunit stands for a specific piece of information. So far, the researchers have created tiny data storage devices made of layered sequence-coded polymers. Recently, they also have studied the crystallization of coded synthetic polymers and observed that the molecular bits that they contain occupy much smaller volumes than do the nucleotides in DNA. “Abiotic sequence-coded polymers are now well beyond proof-of-concept,” said Lutz. “We were the first group. Now it is a trend or field in polymer chemistry.”
He believes that within the next 10 years, his group will bring anti-counterfeiting and traceability technologies using their precisely tailored polymers to market.
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