Biomimicry is Aquaporin's foundation
All living cells depend on aquaporin proteins and the osmosis process to survive. Without these two components, there would be no life as we know it on Earth. We wouldn’t be here, animals wouldn’t be here, plants wouldn’t be here – nature wouldn’t be here. At Aquaporin, we have developed our technology on the principles of biomimicry, using life-essential, natural components to clean water.
By Torsten Bak, SVP of Deep Tech at Aquaporin
At Aquaporin, nature is our constant source of inspiration, and we continuously strive to develop better products based on some of its most fundamental components. In fact, in the core of our water filtration membranes, a natural protein called aquaporin transports water through the membrane in a way identical to that of living cells. Without this protein component, living cells would not be able to exchange water with their surrounding environment, but collapse and die. Living cells’ barrier between their interior and exterior is referred to as their cell membrane, and the cells closely control what molecules enter and leave the cell across the cell membrane. This is a fundamental feature of the cell membranes, as the cells would otherwise not be able to control a stable interior environment which is critical to keep the cells viable.
The source of all water treatment
In its search for the optimal cell membrane, nature developed control systems for each specific molecule. The control was exhibited through proteins that would recognize molecules present near the protein and allow these to pass into or out of the cell. The specific protein enabling water transport is called aquaporin. Aquaporins provide water molecules with a suitable hydrophilic environment through the otherwise hydrophobic and water repellent environment inside the cell membrane. Hence, without the aquaporin protein situated inside the cell membrane, only very limited amounts of water could be transported across the cell membrane. The direction and extent of water transport are regulated by osmosis – a term describing the push for water to move against higher salt concentrations – why the salt balance between the interior and exterior determines whether the cells are charged with or discharged of water.
Transforming nature’s big potential into biomimicry design
Looking at the most fundamental components of life, the idea of combining them into an application is very intriguing at first glance, but also very challenging from a technical point of view. Intriguing, as the components have been optimized for as long as the existence of life on Earth, and the potential of such components to serve good for humankind is therefore immense. Challenging, because it requires a comprehensive investigation to adequately understand how the components work in the natural systems before scientists can begin to transfer them into an engineered system scaled to serve our needs as human beings.
Aquaporins and their impressive abilities
The potential of filtering water using aquaporin proteins has been the main focus of Aquaporin for the past 15 years, and our scientists estimate that one gram of aquaporin proteins has the potential to transport around 700 liters of water per second across a natural cell membrane. In a standard human-engineered system for treatment of drinking water, the water filtration capacity is approximately 50 liters of water per square meter membrane an hour. In comparison, one gram of aquaporin proteins will be able to transfer the same amount across a cell membrane in 0.08 seconds.
Producing membrane proteins on a large scale
To produce enough aquaporin proteins to make a real difference in our water filtration membranes, we needed to consider the complexity of the protein molecule. In general, when producing proteins at an industrial scale, it is still only fermentation of live microbial strains that offers an economically feasible solution. However, in this case, aquaporins belong to the class of proteins that is referred to as membrane proteins. Membrane proteins have traditionally only been produced in the milligram scale for academic purposes or to study specific drug targets where only very limited amounts were needed to run advanced development assays. However, our challenge was that we needed to produce aquaporins on a kilogram scale – annually. Something that had never been done before with any membrane protein.
Striving to integrate more nature
After spending years on developing the process at Aquaporin, we now have extensive knowledge, a proprietary method, and the machines to produce our desired amount of aquaporin proteins. Combined with our proprietary technology, Aquaporin Inside®, this is naturally an endeavor we are very proud of. In fact, we now have so much protein that we offer it to academic communities to expand their interests and possibilities in this important research field. In the meantime, we continue to develop our Aquaporin Inside® technology to meet the increasing demand for ways to preserve the world’s water resources for the benefit of all of us.
Read more about biomimicry definitions and ideas here.