ThisThough they may not realise it, anyone who’s taken the subway at rush hour knows how a red blood cell feels passing through the human spleen. Almost home now, just need to get through the gates; but wait, someone’s ticket isn’t working, the crowd is starting to push, the gates are getting jammed… Maybe you should have called a cab.
Meet Trichoplax adhaerens, a microscopic marine animal from one of the oldest known branches of the evolutionary tree. It looks like a microscopic cell sandwich: two layers of epithelial cells (which make up the surfaces of our organs), with a layer of fibre cells in between.
Understanding the origin of life is one of the most enduring and fundamental scientific challenges there is. Of all branches of science, physics is probably not the first place one would think to go to for enlightenment. Life seems too complicated and multi-layered to be captured by the simplistic frameworks of physics. Today’s paper tackles a small part of understanding the origin of life – the physics of self-replication.
Plants need to know the direction of gravitational pull in order to grow their roots downward and their stems upward. This information is crucial whether the plant grows in your garden, on a cliffside, or even on the International Space Station . While it’s been said that it took a falling apple for Newton to figure out how gravity works, our photosynthetic friends use a more intricate microscale sensor to detect gravity. This sensor consists of starchy granules called statoliths which can be found on the bottom of specialized cells called statocytes.
How do squid build a self-assembling “perfect” lens? Research reveals that diffusion and cell biology are the key.
If you speak to a soft matter physicist these days, within a few minutes the term “active matter” is bound to come up. A material is considered “active” when it burns energy to produce work, just like all sorts of molecular motors, proteins, and enzymes do inside your body. In this study, the scientists are focusing specifically on active polymers. These are long molecules which can burn energy to do physical work. Much of biological active matter is in the form of polymers (DNA or actin-myosin systems for example), and understanding them better would give direct insight into biophysics of all kinds. But polymers are microscopic objects with complex interactions, making them difficult to manipulate directly. To make matters worse, physicists have yet to fundamentally understand the behaviors of active materials, since they do not fit into our existing theories of so-called “passive” systems. In this study, Deblais and colleagues decided to entirely circumvent this problem by working with a much larger and easier-to-study system that behaves similarly to a polymer solution: a mixture of squirming worms in water.
The entirety of our genetic information is encoded in our DNA. In our cells, it wraps together with proteins to form a flexible fiber about 2 metres long known as chromatin. Despite its length, each cell in our body keeps a copy of our chromatin in its nucleus, which is only about 10 microns across. For scale, if the nucleus was the size of a basketball, its chromatin would be about 90 miles long. How can it all fit in there? To make matters worse, the cell needs chromatin to be easily accessible for reading and copying, so it can’t be all tangled up. It’s not surprising then that scientists have been puzzled as to how this packing problem can be reliably solved in every cell. The solution is to pack the chromatin in a specific way, and research suggests that this may be in the form of a “fractal globule”.
Recently, Nicholas Charles and researchers from Harvard published a study that used simulations of elastic fibers to probe their response to stretching and rotation applied simultaneously. The results shed light on how DNA, proteins, and other fibrous materials respond to forces and get their intricate shapes.
For the most part of biology, it is form that follows function. Proteins are a perfect example of this — they are made of a sequence of amino acids (the protein building units), which are synthesized by the ribosome. Once synthesized, the long strings of amino acids fold up into a particular 3D shape or conformational state. Proteins take less than a thousandth of a second to attain their preferred conformational state (called “native state”) that — if nothing goes wrong — ends up being the same for a given sequence. This process is called protein folding. Explaining how a protein finds its folding preference out of all possible ways in such a short time is a longstanding problem in biology.
“One day it’s fine and next it’s…” red? Microscopic algae depend on photosynthesis, so they follow light. Previous research has shown that their swimming is directed towards white light but not to red light. New work shows that light-activated stickiness allows microscopic algae to switch between different movement methods.