The new surfactant, which is based on a protein, is called a pepfactant and it binds to DNA to initiate gene expression. As a laundry detergent, the pepfactant can generate suds that can collapse as quickly as they are created.
When the researchers tweaked its amino acid composition, they found they could switch its properties on and off, in response to changing acidity or the presence of zinc ions.
Researchers say that the system would be better for the environment than standard detergents because it is made of amino acids that microbes can attack and destroy.
But a pepfactant detergent will cost much more than conventional petrochemical-based detergents, although the rising cost of oil may change this.
As far as its medical usage is concerned, a pepfactant could be used to help deliver the anticancer drug, Taxol (paclitaxel), with fewer side-effects. Currently the drug, which is an oily substance, is injected into patients along with petrochemicals to help its delivery via the patient's water-based bloodstream.
The research is funded by the Australian Research Council and the researchers have signed a number of commercial agreements with major multinational pharmaceutical and chemical companies.
The work was presented at an American Chemical Society meeting in Boston recently