Originally a somewhat-colloquial form of the term buckminsterfullerene, the term Buckyball has been expanded in scientific language to mean those compounds or structures that have the basic hollowed-out soccer-ball* form of the C-60 compound, which is technically called a truncated icosahedron. The Buckyball form is extremely sturdy; buckminsterfullerene can withstand impact at 15000 mph, and becomes more solid than diamond at a compression of only 70% (1).

The protein coats of many bacteriophages have a very typical structure consisting of a Buckyball-style head on a suspensor with six to eight "legs" at the bottom. This large head provides ample but efficient space and stalwart protection for the nucleic acids and associated proteins responsible for replication of the phage. In eukaryotes, many, many viruses still exhibit the Buckyball shape, but lack the suspensor/"leg" apparatus of phages. (2, 3) Some of these viruses exhibiting Buckyball-type structures include all of the rhinovirus family (common colds), Coxsackie virus, the virus that causes Foot and Mouth Disease, herpes viruses, poliovirus, and the Hepatitis B virus. Again, this is likely due to the sturdiness and efficiency of the shape for storage of the nucleic acids and proteins needed to infect cells.

If one compares the molecular structure of buckminsterfullerene to the protein structure of these virus coats, it is easy to understand its prevalence. Buckminsterfullerene is composed purely of 60 carbon atoms bonded together, with a space in the middle. Similarly, viral protein coats are usually composed of multiple copies of one basic protein, bonded together with a space in the middle. Just as the Buckyball can hold other atoms in its cavity (1), the viral coat can hold nucleic acids and other necessary proteins in its central space.

Interestingly, some recent findings have shown that certain Buckyball-shaped compounds fit into part of the HIV-1 protease, rather effectively incapacitating the virus, at least in vitro (4). Several different pharmaceutical chemistry laboratories are currently developing fullerene derivatives that may someday see use as treatment for HIV (5).

The name "Buckyball" is derived from R. Buckminster Fuller's preferred nickname, which was "Bucky". The compound, buckminsterfullerene, was named in tribute to his design of the geodesic dome (1), of which the buckyball is reminiscent. Buckyballs were discovered by Robert Curl and Richard Smalley of Rice University and Sir Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex; in 1996, these men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their efforts.

It was recently shown (6) that largemouth bass are prone to brain damage and cancer-like symptoms when exposed to buckyballs. What impact these molecules could have on humans or on the environment remains unknown; however, this study demonstrates the need for careful analysis of engineered molecules prior to their release from the lab.


*(ex-US: football)
Sources:

  1. http://www.insite.com.br/rodrigo/bucky/buckyball.txt
  2. http://mmtsb.scripps.edu/viper/viper.html -- "Virus Particle Explorer", shows shapes of icosahedral viruses from Protein Data Bank
  3. http://www.bocklabs.wisc.edu/virusviztop.html -- more shapes
  4. http://www.chem.wisc.edu/~newtrad/CurrRef/BDGTopic/BDGtext/bmmbas.html
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=PubMed -- MEDLINE search (I used "fullerene HIV")
  6. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/8213/8213bass.html -- article about cancer in bass

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