Bacteria and viruses can be productive little critters, and we might be able to harness them to build materials, fuels, oil, oxygen and antibiotics. Now, researchers at the University of California, Riverside have found a way to use viruses to build gold nanobeads, which can then be used to purify water and could eventually help cut the cost and time required to produce electronic components.

The virus in question here is a bacteriophage known as M13, which has been the focus of similar studies for years thanks to its flexibility, commonality, and ease of genetic manipulation. It's often used to keep arrays of nanowires in place, making for better and more efficient solar cells, lithium-air batteries and piezoelectric devices.

In the past, M13 has been genetically edited so that it binds ions of gold, an ability scientists have tapped into in the past to create long, thin, gold nanowires. In this case, the researchers wanted to change the shape of the virus to create other gold nanostructures.

To do so, they first coaxed M13 into a spheroid shape by exposing it to water and chloroform. Then they added a solution of gold ions, and the viruses got to work building spheres of the stuff. The end result was gold nanobeads measuring a few tens of nanometers wide that were spiky and hollow. The team also used the technique to assemble nanowires up to one micrometer long.

"Nature has been assembling complex, highly organized nanostructures for millennia with precision and specificity far superior to the most advanced technological approaches," says Elaine Haberer, senior author of the study. "By understanding and harnessing these capabilities, this extraordinary nanoscale precision can be used to tailor and build highly advanced materials with previously unattainable performance."

The researchers say that the gold nanobeads could be used as photocatalysts to clean up wastewater. The process may also be possible on related viruses.

The research was published in the journal Nanoscale.