Big progress in the production of model biological membranes

Scientists made significant progress in the production of biological membranes that can be used for structural and dynamic characterisations.

As part of the NMI3 Joint Research Activity on Advanced Neutron Tools for Soft and Bio-Materials, a team at the Institut Laue-Langevin in France has been working on producing model biological membranes as relevant as possible.

To reach their goal, two main aspects had to be worked upon:

  1. The composition of model and natural membrane systems
  2. The investigation of whether the physical systems studied behave like natural membranes.
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The team in the light scattering lab. Left to right: Y. Gerelli, R. Schweins, D. Hess. Picture courtesy of G. Fragneto.

Composition of the membrane

The goal here was to demonstrate that they could produce robust, reproducible membranes from natural lipids and characterise them using neutron techniques. The team succeeded largely as they:

  • Optimised procedures to produce single-bilayers on a solid substrate. This was done in the ILL laboratories with a number of techniques complementary to neutrons.
  • Conducted a series of experiments, mainly using neutron reflectometry, that proved that it is possible to produce very good bilayers, which could be used to look at interactions with other molecules. In particular they looked at the interaction of bilayers with a small molecule, an antibiotic, and the model was indeed working well.

The membrane physical system

Natural membranes are fluid and fluctuating. When scientists attach them to a solid substrate so that they can investigate them with neutron reflectometry techniques, the membranes can lose some of this mobility. A large part of the work of this JRA task was to find ways of making these membranes more mobile, more fluctuating, by moving them away from the solid substrate with cushions. While there are many ways in which this could be achieved, it is a rather challenging goal. The team focused both on double bilayers and polymer layers. Even though progress has been made, which is reported in a number of publications, they haven’t reached yet a fully satisfactory model.

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