Scientists dream of micro-submarines

In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a submarine and its crew shrink to the size of a microbe in order to travel into the body of an escaped Soviet scientist and remove a blood clot in his brain. The film gave viewers a glimpse into a possible future where doctors could treat patients by going directly to the source of the problem instead of being limited by the inaccessibility of most parts of the human body. This dream of a tiny submarine that can be piloted through the human body to deliver medical care remains, even 50 years later, in the realm of science fiction. However, Miskin and coworkers at Cornell University have brought us one step closer to making this a reality with their recent development of autonomous microscale machines.

Coil and Recoil: New screw-like bacteria swimming

No one likes being stuck. Whether you are in a car stranded in mud or stuck in a dead-end job, continuing normal behaviour is unlikely to help. Whereas we can see approaching hazards and dead-ends and try to avoid them, bacteria must blindly swim through passageways and channels that are of a similar size to themselves, often resulting in the cell becoming trapped. So, how does a bacterium change its behaviour to free itself?

Self-assembling silk lasers

Rings, spheres, and optical resonators self-assembled out of silk

When I first learned about the coffee ring effect I thought it was super cool, but it seemed like an open-and-shut case. Why do rings form where some liquids, like spilled coffee, are left to dry? Roughness on the table causes the liquid to spread imperfectly across the surface, pinning the edges of the droplet in place with a fixed diameter. Because the diameter of the droplet can’t change during evaporation, new liquid must flow from the droplet’s center to the edges. This flow also pushes dissolved coffee particles to the edges of the droplet, where they are left behind to form a ring as the water evaporates away (Figure 1). More details can be found in our previous post, here. It’s a complicated phenomenon, but after being described in 1997 it doesn’t seem like anything new would be going on here. Right? Well, as it usually happens in science, classic concepts have a way of popping back up in unexpected ways. Last year Itır Bakış Doğru and her colleagues in Prof. Nizamoğlu’s group at Koç University, Turkey published a study using the often troublesome coffee ring effect to their advantage: making self-assembling silk lasers.

Microcannons firing Nanobullets

Sometimes I read papers that enhance my understanding of how the universe works, and sometimes I read papers about fundamental research leading to promising new technologies. Occasionally though, I read a paper that is just inherently cool. The paper by Fernando Soto, Aida Martin, and friends in ACS Nano, titled "Acoustic Microcannons: Toward Advanced Microballistics" is such a paper.

Dividing Liquid Droplets as Protocells

In the beginning there was... what, exactly? Uncovering the origins of life is a notoriously difficult problem. When a researcher looks at a cell today, they sees the highly-polished end product of millennia of evolution-driven engineering. In today’s paper, David Zwicker, Rabea Seyboldt, and their colleagues construct a relatively simple theoretical model for how liquid droplets can behave in remarkably life-life ways.

Discovery of Liquid Crystals in Short DNA

Ever since its discovery, scientists have known that the DNA molecule is present in every life form. It carries the genetic information of all living organisms and many viruses. Today, however, we will strip DNA of its genetic importance and look at it from a different perspective. We will discuss why DNA attracts attention even outside of the biological context: What is the connection between DNA and liquid crystals? What are end-to-end stacking interactions and why are they important? If you want to get answers on these questions (and many more), keep reading.

Knotty DNA

Try taking out your earphones from your pocket and, in all probability, you’ll find knots and entanglements between the ends. As it turns out, this knotting effect is not limited to macroscopic objects, but occurs on the nanoscale as well. A DNA molecule that carries the genetic information of a living organism is actually a long string-like polymer, so you can imagine that it would also get tangled up just like the cords of your earphones. In today’s paper, Calin Plesa and his colleagues at TU Delft are able to observe and measure these knots in DNA strands and uncover behaviour which has not been observed before.

Soft nanoparticles: when polymers meet soap

For more than four decades, scientists have been investigating the properties of small objects dispersed in solutions. Some of these objects - produced in laboratories - are the so called soft nanoparticles. The name soft comes from the fact that these particles are partly solid and partly liquid. One of the scientists’ aims is to design nanoparticles that will be used as carriers of medical compounds (like drugs, DNA segments, and enzymes). The nanoparticles’ role will be to protect this cargo from partial degradation through the human body until reaching the specific target cells where the nanoparticles’ structure will break up and the useful compounds will be released. This technology will allow for disease treatments using smaller amounts of drugs, which will mean fewer side effects for the patients.

How swimming bacteria spin fluid

In today’s study, Dunkel and his colleagues investigate how bacteria can make flow patterns that look turbulent -  chaotic and full of vortices - even though bacteria are tiny and slow.  The bacteria push the fluid around as they swim and create vortices, spinning regions in the fluid. The 5 μm long bacteria create vortices with diameters of 80 μm by swimming at the speed of 30 μm/s!

The living silly putty, episode 2: the spreading!

Douezan et al PNAS 2011

In episode one of this series, I presented a research paper by Stéphane Douezan and his colleagues in which they studied a ball of cells (called a cellular aggregate) sitting on a flat surface. After introducing the concept of cellular aggregate wetting by comparing it to the classical system of a drop of water, today I present the main part of the paper which looks at the dynamics of spreading of the cellular aggregate. I strongly suggest that the reader reads the first post before reading this one.