Many life forms generate intricate submicron biosilica structures with various important biological functions. The formation of such structures, from the silicic acid in the waters and in the soil, is thought to be regulated by unique proteins with high repeats of specific amino acids and unusual sidechain modifications. Some silicifying proteins are characterized by high prevalence of basic amino acids in their primary structures. Lysine-rich domains are found, for instance, in diatom silaffin proteins and in the sorghum grass siliplant1 protein. These domains exhibit catalytic activity in silica chain condensation, owing to molecular interactions of the lysine amine groups with the forming mineral. The use of amine chemistry by two very remote organisms has motivated us to seek other molecular biosilicification processes that may be common to the two life forms. In diatom silaffins, domains rich in phosphoserine residues are thought to assist the assembly of silaffin molecules into an organic supra-structure which serves as a template for the silica to precipitate on. This mold, held by salt bridges between serine phosphates and lysine amines, dictates the shape of the silica particles formed. Yet, silica synthesized with the dephosphorylated silaffin in phosphate buffer showed similar morphology to the one prepared with the native protein, suggesting that a defined spatial arrangement of serine phosphates is not required to generate silica with the desired shape. Concurrently, free phosphates enhanced the activity of siliplant1 in silica formation. It is therefore beneficial to characterize the involvement of these anions as co-factors in regulated silicification by functional peptides from the two proteins and to understand whether they play similar molecular role in the mechanism of mineralization. Here we analyze the molecular interactions of free phosphate ions with silica and the silaffin peptide PL12 and separately with silica and siliplant1 peptide SLP1 in the two biomimetic silica products generated by the two peptides. MAS NMR measurements show that the phosphate ions interact with the peptides and at the same time may be forming bonds with the silica mineral. This bridging capability may add another avenue by which the structure of the silica material is influenced. A model for the molecular/ionic interactions at the bio-inorganic interface is described, which may have bearings for the role of phosphorylated residues beyond the function as intermolecular cross linkers or free phosphate ions as co-factors in regulation of silicification. Statement of Significance: The manuscript addresses the question how proteins in diatoms and plants regulate the biosilica materials that are produced for various purposes in organisms. It uses preparation of silica in vitro with functional peptide derivatives from a sorghum grass protein and from a diatom silaffin protein separately to show that phosphate ions are important for the control that is achieved by these proteins on the final shape of the silica material produced. It portrays via magnetic resonance spectroscopic measurements, in atomic detail, the interface between atoms in the peptide, atoms on the surface of the silica formed and the phosphate ions that form chemical bonds with atoms on the silica as part of the mechanism of action of these peptides.
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