Physicists at the University of Chicago and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are uncovering the fundamental physical laws that govern the behavior of cellular materials.
"We don't have any tools or formalism to think about these types of materials, and that's what we've been trying to go after," said Margaret Gardel, professor in physics at UChicago. Gardel and Jennifer Ross of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are supported in this work by a four-year, $800,000 INSPIRE grant from the National Science Foundation.
Gardel studies the building blocks of the cytoskeletonthe materials inside a cell that provide its shape and allow it to moveby extracting proteins from the cell and studying how they interact in vitro. "These materials are what makes living cells living materials and not dead materials," said Gardel.
Biological materials behave differently than non-living materials because, unlike conventional materials, they are not in a state of equilibriumthey constantly consume energy and do work with that energy. Studying the unique physics of such materials is interesting in its own right and could allow physicists to produce novel materials for applications outside the lab. "We are trying to take advantage of what is intrinsically new that these materials can do, that cannot be done by equilibrium material," said physics graduate student Patrick McCall, a member of Gardel's lab.
The NSF created the INSPIRE grants to fund interdisciplinary research that is innovative, and perhaps risky, but which could lead to big leaps in understanding. Gardel and Ross's research fits the bill because the scientists are working in uncharted territorywithout theories to guide their wayas these materials are still poorly understood. "These systems are a part of nature that physics is not great at describing," Ross said.
Through their work, Gardel and Ross plan to catalog the phases of biological materials. Just as t
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University of Chicago