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Image of the Week: Lipid motion in a cell membrane

7 Mar, 2014

Image credit: Dr Matthieu Chavent

This week’s image of the week is a guest post by Dr Matthieu Chavent, a post-doctoral researcher funded by the Wellcome Trust. His image shows a model of lipid motion in a cell membrane – and it recently won the Biophysical Society Art of Science Image Contest 2014. Here he explains how his work membrane systems resulted in this stunning image that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery…

The cell membrane plays a central role in maintaining the integrity of the cell. It defines the interior of the cell and it is also the medium by which molecules need pass between the external environment and the interior of the cell.

The cell membrane is a complex and crowded environment with different types of molecules such as lipids and proteins, which are in a dynamic equilibrium. It is therefore important to understand how these molecules interact in order to comprehend key biological phenomena such as virus entry into a cell or drug permeation through cell membranes.

Cell membranes also play a key role in signalling between and within cells. An improved molecular understanding of the dynamic organization of cell membranes will help to develop new strategies to fight against important diseases such as viral infections or cancers.

In order to try to better understand the membrane behaviour, it is possible to develop simplified theoretical models mimicking a small part of this membrane.

Using computer simulations, we can then ‘animate’ these models to see how the constituents of the membrane interact. Analysing these dynamic models can be very challenging, so it is also important to develop new ways of examining such systems.

Inspired by approaches in physics to model wind or ocean currents, we have developed a new way to display collective movements of lipids molecules constituting the membrane.

The visualization above shows how we can display the flow-like movements of lipids as nano-vortices. We hope that this visualization will help people better understand the dynamics of the membrane and give new ideas to other researchers.

Image credit: Dr Matthieu Chavent

Dr Matthieu Chavent works in Mark Sansom’s group in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Oxford, and his main research focus is on large membrane systems analysis and protein-membrane interaction to study cell signalling. You can find out more information about this work here.

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