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Closer look at cell membrane shows cholesterol 'keeping order'
Date:3/31/2011

Cell membranes form the "skin" of most every cell in your body, but the ability to view them up close and in motion cannot be rendered by many experimental techniques. A team of scientists working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and University of California, Irvine, recently developed a way to magnify them dramatically. Their work has helped illuminate the important role of cholesterol within this boundary between the cell and the outside world.

The multi-institutional team used tools at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) to examine the membrane at more than 1,000 times the resolution offered by an optical microscopethe equivalent of magnifying the point of a needle to the size of a large building. This enabled an unprecedented look at the membrane, whichbecause it controls access to our cellsis a major target for many drugs.

"Drugs that affect pain sensation, heart rhythm, mood, appetite and memory all target proteins lodged in the cell membrane that function like little gates," says Ella Mihailescu of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Maryland. "Because membranes and their proteins are important to medicine, we would like a better picture of how the membrane functionsand not just a better snapshot. We want to see it move, as it does constantly in real life."

Optical microscopes offer limited resolution, while the more powerful electron microscopes require freezing samples before they can be magnified. But by using neutron diffraction, which does not require frozen subjects, the team not only observed the membrane more closely and in motion, but they also gained insight into the long-known phenomenon of the membrane growing thicker and stiffer in the presence of cholesterol.

These lipid chains form a two-layer skin with the "heads" of the lipids facing outward toward the cell's exterior and interior and the "t
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Contact: Chad Boutin
boutin@nist.gov
301-975-4261
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Source:Eurekalert  

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