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Liquid crystal droplets discovered to be exquisitely sensitive to an important bacterial lipid
Date:5/20/2011

MADISON In the computer displays of medical equipment in hospitals and clinics, liquid crystal technologies have already found a major role. But a discovery reported from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that micrometer-sized droplets of liquid crystal, which have been found to change their ordering and optical appearance in response to the presence of very low concentrations of a particular bacterial lipid, might find new uses in a range of biological contexts.

Detecting endotoxin, a lipid-polysaccharide combination that is found in the outer membranes of many types of bacteria, is a standard way to establish the presence of bacterial contamination in a wide range of drugs, medical supplies and equipment. The current technology is based on a complex mixture of proteins isolated from the blood of a horseshoe crab, says Nicholas Abbott, a professor and the chair of chemical and biological engineering at UW-Madison.

Abbott, an expert in surfaces of soft materials, knows that liquid crystals have highly useful properties. "An unusual characteristic of a liquid crystal is that information travels through it over long distances. Many past studies have shown that events at a surface of a liquid crystal, which might affect just one layer of molecules, can trigger a change in the ordering of the liquid crystal that propagates as deep as 100,000 molecules away from the interface."

In a paper published Friday, May 20, in Science, Abbott and colleagues showed that concentrations of endotoxin in the picogram/milliliter range were enough to trigger a change in the appearance of liquid crystalline droplets visible in a light microscope. "When we investigated the behavior of endotoxin with the liquid crystalline droplets, we were surprised to find that we could decrease the concentration of endotoxin to extremely low levels and still see that change in the ordering of the liquid crystals."

Abbott initially thought that the
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Contact: Nicholas Abbott
abbott@engr.wisc.edu
608-265-5278
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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