What looks like the intricate makings of a futuristic sculptor is the product of nature itself. The spherical spores of the fungal mould Emericella nidulans are coated by a thin layer of hydrophobin, a water-repellent protein that causes rainwater to run off the skin of the fungus leaving no trace. Recognising the potential benefit of this fungal mechanism for technological applications, BASF scientists became interested in hydrophobin. BASF is now the first company in the world to succeed in synthesising the protein on an industrial scale.
'It's a protein with unique properties. It forms very thin films on any kind of surface and thus changes the properties of that surface. For example, glass with a hydrophobin coating will repel water, while Teflon(R) with a hydrophobin coating will attract water. A coating with this protein is also resistant to temperature, acids and alkalis,' says Dr Claus Bollschweiler, head of the BASF Performance Proteins research group. Scientists are also looking into ways of using hydrophobin-coated polymer sponges to remove diesel and oil from contaminated waters. The protein's broad range of properties makes it suitable for an array of applications. It stabilises pigment dispersions and has potential as a cosmetic ingredient stabilising creams and other emulsions. Best of all: once the protein has done its job, it biodegrades in a natural way.
The microscopic photograph is part of the 'Images from the World of Research' series, now offering twelve new images from BASF's cutting-edge research. The series gives an insight into a microcosm invisible to the naked eye - the domain of atoms and molecules. State-of-the-art technologies like scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy are only now revealing a hidden world of fascinating forms and structures.