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.