Mix two parts cornstarch and one part water. Swirl your fingers in it slowly and the mixture is a smoothly flowing liquid. Punch it quickly with your fist and you meet a rubbery solid -- so solid you can jump up and down on a vat of it.
It turns out that cell membranes or, more precisely the two-molecule-thick lipid sheets that form the structural basis of all cellular membranes -- behave the same way, say University of Oregon scientists.
For decades, researchers have been aware that biological membranes are fluid, and that this fluidity is crucial to allowing the motions and interactions of proteins and other cell surface molecules. The new studies, however, reveal that this state is not the simple Newtonian fluidity of familiar liquids like water, but rather it is viscoelastic. At rest the mixture is very fluid, but when quickly perturbed, it bounces back like rubber.
The discovery -- detailed Oct. 25 in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- strikes down the notion that these biologically important membranes are Newtonian fluids that flow regardless of the stress they encounter.
"This changes our whole understanding of what lipid membranes are," said Raghuveer Parthasarathy, a professor of physics and member of the UO's Materials Science Institute and Institute of Molecular Biology. "We may need to rethink our understanding of how all sorts of the mechanical processes that occur in cell membranes work, like how proteins are pulled from one place to another, how cells respond to stretching and other forces, and how membrane-embedded proteins that serve as channels for chemical signals are able to open and close.
"A lot of these mechanical tasks go awry in various diseases for reasons that remain mysterious," he said. "Perhaps a deeper understanding of the mechanical environment that membranes provide will illuminate why biology functions, or fails to function, in the way i
|Contact: Jim Barlow|
University of Oregon