CAREER: CAS: Understanding the Coordination Chemistry of Lanthanide-binding Proteins for Rare Earth Element Sensing, Capture, and Recycling

Project: Research project

Project Details


The seventeen rare earth elements, which include the lanthanides, play critical and often irreplaceable roles in a broad range of devices ranging from cell phones to fighter jets. However, the production of rare earth-containing starting materials is currently an inefficient and environmentally unfriendly process. The recent discovery of organisms that utilize certain lanthanides for specific cellular functions suggests that learning how these organisms selectively take up and use lanthanides could lead to the development of new methods for the efficient detection, capture, and recycling of these important elements. This project of Professor Cotruvo from the Pennsylvania State University and funded by the Chemistry Of Life Processes Program seeks to characterize metal binding to natural lanthanide-binding proteins, a first step in setting the groundwork for potential applications of these proteins in rare earth harvesting and recycling. The outreach efforts of this program focus on the education of the next generation of scientists. A primary objective is the implementation of a professional development program that includes lab rotations for freshmen and sophomores at Penn State. The goal of the program is to help the undergraduate students discover chemistry research questions about which they are passionate and to lower the barriers to pursuing undergraduate research for these students.

The over-arching goal of this research project is to gain a fundamental understanding of how biological systems selectively recognize lanthanides over other, more abundant metal ions. Recent studies have shown that lanthanides are specifically utilized by certain bacteria. This research follows from the recent discovery and preliminary characterization of the first lanthanide-binding proteins that are not enzymes. These novel proteins may be used in the future to address the challenging chemical problem of harvesting lanthanides and other rare earth elements because they bind lanthanides reversibly and selectively. The project aims to use a variety of structural and spectroscopic methods to elucidate the lanthanide coordination by Methylorubrum extorquens lanmodulin, a recently discovered protein that binds lanthanides with picomolar affinity and million-fold selectivity over many other common elements.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date2/1/201/31/25


  • National Science Foundation: $810,000.00


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