Pulling too hard on a synthetic soft material like a rubber band usually leads to its failure. However, some biological soft materials, like our muscles, experience the opposite behavior. Our muscles, for instance, grow by repairing damage caused by a mechanical effort, such as lifting weigths. A team of researchers from Hokkaido University successfully mimicked this biological process and applied it to develop hydrogels that get stronger under tensile stress.
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.
If you’ve ever worn soft contact lenses, you may know that they dry out and harden if they are not stored in a solution. This pervasive issue of hydrogel materials occurs when the solvent leaks or evaporates, affecting their mechanical properties. In this week’s post, polymer scientists develop super-soft dry elastomers (very elastic or rubbery polymers) that surpass the softness and elasticity of hydrogels, all without getting their hands wet.
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”.
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.
If we could shrink a submarine down to the microscopic scale, could we pilot it into the human body to fight infection and perform surgery? Despite suggestions from futuristic sci-fi such as “Fantastic Voyage”, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “The Magic School Bus”, “Power Rangers”, and “Rick and Morty”, we cannot survive such shrinking and our vessel would be without a pilot. But it may still be possible to “shrink” down some of our technology and control it remotely as we will see from researchers at MIT in this week’s paper.
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 my previous post on soft nanoparticles, you were introduced to polymer-based nanoparticles that could be used in biomedical applications, one of which is cancer therapy. These nanoparticles have a range of useful properties for cancer treatments, including their spherical shape and small size (~100 nm), both of which are similar to exosomes, small globules that are used in nature for transferring proteins between cells. Since cells naturally absorb exosomes, artificial particles with this size and shape should also be easy for cells to absorb, which means these particles could be used to deliver drugs into cells. While this idea sounds promising, it hasn’t worked out in practice — when drug-loaded polymer-based nanoparticles were injected into a tumor, subsequent tests showed that less than 1% of the injected dose entered the cancer cells. Since these particles were the correct size and shape, why didn’t they get inside the target cells?
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.
Biofilms cause health problems for millions of people worldwide every year, primarily because of infections during surgery or consumption of contaminated packaged foods. To prevent these problems, some scientists are developing surface coatings that will prevent biofilm formation in the first place. In this week’s paper, we will learn about a new technique for creating a microscopic “shield” against the formation and growth of biofilms.