Dr Thomas Wilks

Dr Thomas Wilks

School of Chemistry
Group Leader
Senior Research Fellow

Dr. Thomas Wilks is Group Leader and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, where his work focuses on understanding and controlling self-assembly at the nanometer scale. To do this, he uses advanced polymer synthesis techniques and collaborate with specialists from a wide range of fields, from light scattering to cell biology.

Dr Wilks also sits on the School of Chemistry’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee and is passionate about widening participation in higher education.

Qualifications

Senior Research Fellow in Polymer Chemistry:

  • PhD in Chemistry, University of Warwick, 2013
  • MSci, MA in Natural Sciences, University of Cambridge, 2008

Biography

Dr Wilks was born in Brighton but grew up in rural Northamptonshire. He studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2008 with a first class honours degree having worked on the controlled synthesis of semi-conducting polymers during my MSci project. After a year out working as a Schools Liaison Officer at Clare College Cambridge, helping to break down some of the myths surrounding Cambridge and HE in general, and encouraging students from underprivileged backgrounds to aspire to top flight universities, Thomas started his PhD with the O'Reilly group at the University of Warwick.

His thesis described novel DNA-polymer conjugation strategies and the use of these to create interesting new materials incorporating the useful properties of DNA (sequence specificity, addressability, formation of precision 3D structures) and synthetic polymers (low production costs, responsiveness to external stimuli, controlled aggregation).

After being awarded my PhD in August 2013, he spent 2 and a half years working as a Regional Director for The Brilliant Club, an educational charity that places PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in schools to help disadvantaged children develop the skills and confidence they need to secure places at top universities. Dr Wilks returned to academia in 2016 but retained a keen interest in a commitment to public engagement and widening participation.

Outside the lab, he has two young children who keep him very busy, and is also an avid baker.

Teaching

A range of courses covering core Organic Chemistry and Polymer Chemistry.

Postgraduate supervision

Please contact Dr Wilks directly if you are interested in postgraduate opportunities.

Research

Research interests

Dr Wilks is interested in how chemical matter behaves at the nanoscale, one ‘level’ up from individual molecules and atoms. Understanding fundamental processes of self-assembly and developing new tools to control them is at the heart of what he does because having such tools will enable incredible leaps in our ability to design and make advanced materials. Molecular diagnostics, ‘smart’ therapeutics, artificial cells: underpinning all these exciting, emerging technologies is a deep knowledge of how molecules, large and small, interact on the nanoscale. Under this broad umbrella, his work is split into three themes.

New Methods for Controlled Polymer Self-Assembly

Nanoparticles are extremely interesting materials, with many potential applications ranging from medicine to energy generation and storage. As well as its basic chemistry, the size and shape of a nanoparticle has a huge impact on its properties.

For example, rod-like particles behave very differently in cells and the circulatory system than their spherical counterparts. However, there are currently only a handful of methods that allow size and shape to be tuned with precision, and expanding this toolbox is one of my main research focuses. Doing this requires working across multiple disciplines: Dr Wilks collaborate with physicists to understand the fundamentals of self-assembly, and biologists to ask questions about the cellular processing of nanomaterials.

His main tools for this job are hydrogen-bonding (H-bonding) mediated assemblies, which have for many decades been employed as surrogates to mimic the nanostructures formed as a result of nucleobase pairing within RNA and DNA. We have recently shown that assembling nanoparticles with nucleobase functionality sequestered in the core allows us to easily and selectively control the shape of the particles simply by adding a diblock copolymer bearing the complementary nucleobase.

We are now exploring how this method can be used to generate nanoparticle libraries in which size, shape and chemistry are varied independently. This will enable us to answer fundamental questions about the effects of these parameters on biological processing, ultimately enabling more rational design of nanoparticles for therapeutic applications – an area that has huge potential, but which is yet to be fully realised for want of this basic understanding.

DNA-Templated Synthesis

There is a pressing need to find new molecules capable of meeting challenges in energy generation and storage, catalysis and human health, but chemical space is vast and it is never going to be practical to synthesise every possible molecule that could exist. One solution to this problem is to use the principles of evolution by natural selection, i.e., develop a system where instructions are translated into products, these products are exposed to a selection pressure (for example binding to a target), the ‘fittest’ products survive and their instructions are replicated, mutation diversifies the instructions, and the process is repeated many times.

This way, it is possible to search a large chemical space efficiently without the need to make every possible molecule. At the foundation of this system is some method for translating a set of instructions into a chemical product. In living organisms this function is fulfilled by the ribosome, but this is limited to making peptides from 21 naturally occurring amino acids. How can we get around this? One solution is DNA-templated synthesis (DTS), which controls chemical product formation by using the specificity of DNA hybridization to bring selected reactants into close proximity, and which is capable of the programmed synthesis of many distinct products in the same reaction vessel. By making use of dynamic, programmable DNA processes, it is possible to engineer a system that can translate instructions coded as a sequence of DNA bases into a chemical structure – but without the constraint of using only amino acids. It is also possible to ensure that each product molecule is tagged with its identifying DNA sequence.

Compound libraries synthesized in this way can be exposed to selection against suitable targets, enriching successful molecules. The encoding DNA can then be amplified using the polymerase chain reaction and decoded by DNA sequencing. More importantly, the DNA instruction sequences can be mutated and reused during multiple rounds of amplification, translation and selection.

My research is focused on developing autonomous DTS systems that can reliably synthesise large combinatorial libraries with high efficiency. This involves developing new templated chemical reactions, investigating novel solvents to improve the efficiency of existing DTS chemistries, and designing new DNA mechanisms.

DNA-Polymer Conjugates

DNA is a fascinating material, best known for its ability to encode genetic information but with a wide variety of other uses in nanotechnology. For example, DNA can be folded into intricate shapes and patterns on the nanoscale (DNA ‘origami’) to produce a huge variety of 2D and 3D structures, with potential applications in drug delivery, diagnostics and electronics. Synthetic polymers, meanwhile, are cheap to make and can be easily tailored to specific applications.

For example, temperature- and pH-responsive polymers, which change their solubility in water in response to an environmental change, are straightforward to make. By combining the unique properties of DNA and synthetic polymers, it is possible to create new materials that exhibit unique behaviour. We reported the first example of a DNA-polymer hybrid in which the DNA was used to form a 3D structure (in this case a tetrahedron, see above). We also developed a way of non-covalently modifying double stranded DNA with polymers by making use of intercalation interactions between the DNA base pairs. I am currently working on new methods for the synthesis of DNA-polymer conjugates and their self-assembly.

Other activities

  • Consultant for the University of Wolverhampton’s Aspire to HE programme.
  • Former Midlands Regional Director of The Brilliant Club.

Publications

Recent publications

Article

Nuñez-Pertiñez, S & Wilks, T 2020, 'Deep eutectic solvents as media for the prebiotic DNA-templated synthesis of peptides', Frontiers in Chemistry, vol. 8, 41. https://doi.org/10.3389/fchem.2020.00041

Worch, JC, Weems, AC, Yu, J, Arno, MC, Wilks, TR, Huckstepp, RTR, O'Reilly, RK, Becker, ML & Dove, AP 2020, 'Elastomeric polyamide biomaterials with stereochemically tuneable mechanical properties and shape memory', Nature Communications, vol. 11, no. 1, 3250. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16945-8

Hua, Z, Jones, JR, Thomas, M, Arno, MC, Souslov, A, Wilks, T & O'Reilly, R 2019, 'Anisotropic polymer nanoparticles with controlled dimensions from the morphological transformation of isotropic seeds', Nature Communications, vol. 10, 5406, pp. 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-13263-6

Nuñez-Pertiñez, S, Wilks, T & O'Reilly, R 2019, 'Microcalorimetry and fluorescence show stable peptide nucleic acid (PNA) duplexes in high organic content solvent mixtures', Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry, vol. 17, no. 34, pp. 7874-7877. https://doi.org/10.1039/C9OB01460H

Hua, Z, Wilks, TR, Keogh, R, Herwig, G, Stavros, VG & O'Reilly, RK 2018, 'Entrapment and rigidification of adenine by a photo-cross-linked thymine network leads to fluorescent polymer nanoparticles', Chemistry of Materials, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 1408-1416. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chemmater.7b05206

Fong, D, Hua, Z, Wilks, TR, O'Reilly, RK & Adronov, A 2017, 'Dispersion of single-walled carbon nanotubes using nucleobase-containing poly(acrylamide) polymers', Journal of Polymer Science. Part A: Polymer Chemistry, vol. 55, no. 16, pp. 2611-2617. https://doi.org/10.1002/pola.28652

Hua, Z, Keogh, R, Li, Z, Wilks, TR, Chen, G & O'Reilly, RK 2017, 'Reversibly manipulating the surface chemistry of polymeric nanostructures via a "grafting to" approach mediated by nucleobase interactions', Macromolecules, vol. 50, no. 9, pp. 3662-3670. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.macromol.7b00286

O'Reilly, RK, Turberfield, AJ & Wilks, TR 2017, 'The evolution of DNA-templated synthesis as a tool for materials discovery', Accounts of Chemical Research, vol. 50, no. 10, pp. 2496-2509. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.accounts.7b00280

Wilks, TR & O'Reilly, RK 2016, 'Efficient DNA-polymer coupling in organic solvents: a survey of amide coupling, Thiol-Ene and Tetrazine-Norbornene chemistries applied to conjugation of Poly(N-Isopropylacrylamide)', Scientific Reports, vol. 6, 39192. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39192

Hua, Z, Pitto-Barry, A, Kang, Y, Kirby, N, Wilks, TR & O'Reilly, RK 2016, 'Micellar nanoparticles with tuneable morphologies through interactions between nucleobase-containing synthetic polymers in aqueous solution', Polymer Chemistry, vol. 7, pp. 4254-4262. https://doi.org/10.1039/c6py00716c

Wilks, TR, Pitto-Barry, A, Kirby, N, Stulz, E & O'Reilly, RK 2014, 'Construction of DNA-polymer hybrids using intercalation interactions', Chemical Communications, vol. 50, no. 11, pp. 1338-1340. https://doi.org/10.1039/c3cc48726a

Wilks, TR, Bath, J, de Vries, JW, Raymond, JE, Herrmann, A, Turberfield, AJ & O'Reilly, RK 2013, '"Giant Surfactants" Created by the Fast and Efficient Functionalization of a DNA Tetrahedron with a Temperature-Responsive Polymer', ACS Nano, vol. 7, no. 10, pp. 8561-8572. https://doi.org/10.1021/nn402642a

Conference contribution

O'Reilly, RK, Moughton, AO, Wilks, TR & Munuera, LJ 2008, Click chemistry for the synthesis of fucntional materials. in American Chemical Society, Polymer Preprints, Division of Polymer Chemistry.

Letter

Li, Z, Zhang, Y, Wu, L, Yu, W, Wilks, T, Dove, A, Ding, H, O'Reilly, R, Chen, G & Jiang, M 2019, 'Glyco-platelets with controlled morphologies via crystallization-driven self-assembly and their shape-dependent interplay with macrophages', ACS Macro Letters, vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 596-602. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsmacrolett.9b00221

View all publications in research portal