Our bodies are made up of cells that can sense and respond to their dynamic environment. As an example, pancreatic beta cells chemically sense increased blood sugar concentrations and respond by producing insulin. Scientists have found that cells can also mechanically sense their environment; “mechanosensing” determines whether a cell should grow or die. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth, where cells often contain mutations that inhibit the natural mechanisms of cell death. Because mechanosensing is one such mechanism, scientists have hypothesized that cancer cells keep growing because they lack the ability to probe their environments. In this week’s paper, published in Nature Materials, an international research team led by Bo Yang and Michael Sheetz from the National University of Singapore investigated that hypothesis by combining tools from soft matter physics and biology.
Many consumer products, such as clothes and food packaging, are made of blends of polymers, long molecules consisting of repeating chemical units. The attractiveness of using blends of different polymers arises from the engineers’ desire to combine multiple unique properties of each individual polymer, such as transparency, stretchability, and breathability, into a seamless whole. However, different polymers are not necessarily miscible, a term scientists use to describe whether two materials mix at the molecular level. Miscibility isn’t a one-and-done kind of deal: scientists and engineers have known for years how to make polymer blends mix by careful temperature control. What if there were conditions other than temperature to achieve polymer blend miscibility? This may ultimately help in industrial processing of polymer blends. In this week’s paper, Professors Annika Kriisa and Connie B. Roth from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, explore the mixing dynamics of two polymers by using a strong electric field.
In the world of engineering, crafting a material that meets the needs of your application is challenging. Often, a given material may only provide a handful of the required properties for that application. Instead, you may choose to combine two or more materials, forming a composite with all of your desired properties. In this week’s paper, Zhang and coworkers from the University of California at San Diego took a similar approach in the world of biology by combining a biomolecular crystal with a flexible polymer. The crystal provides structure to the composite and the polymer contributes to its flexibility and expandability. They showed that the composite could reversibly expand to nearly 570% of its original volume and unexpectedly found that it was self-healing.
One of the greatest challenges of making proton exchange membrane fuel cells is designing the membrane after which they are named. Engineers would love to have a membrane that transports protons quickly and efficiently. Although there are polymeric materials (e.g. Nafion) that can do this fairly well, there is still a need for faster transport. This week’s paper investigates the role of a polymer’s “precise” structure in facilitating fast proton transport.