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Researchers Corral Millions Of Microscopic Membranes

pped tiny bags, or vesicles, of membrane material extracted from chicken eggs into the corrals, which were submerged in saline water. They determined that the vesicles fused to form uniform membrane patches that completely covered the squares but stopped at the borders. These membranes are very thin, about 50 atoms thick.

Technically, the structures are called fluid bilayer membranes because they consist of two opposed layers of fatty acid molecules, or lipids. This is the basic structure of all living cell membranes.

Further, the researchers determined that the membrane patches were stable and retained their basic properties for several weeks. In addition, they demonstrated that each membrane patch was effectively isolated from its neighbors.

Stanford University has applied for a patent on the basic process.

One of the possible applications for these micro-membranes is as a tool for determining the structure of membrane proteins.

One of the most powerful methods for determining the structure of proteins is X-ray crystallography. For this method to work, however, researchers must purify and crystallize the material. This has proven very difficult for proteins associated with membranes because they cannot be easily separated from the membrane material.

"There is a revolution going on in structural biology. Each year the structures of hundreds to thousands of new proteins are solved. But so far only a handful of these have been membrane proteins," Boxer said.

He said that this is an area where the new method may help. Many associated proteins can move freely about on a membrane's surface. In previous work, the researchers have demonstrated that they can use electric fields to concentrate such proteins against two-dimensional membrane boundaries. They suggest that it should be possible to both concentrate and crystallize such proteins by applying an intense electrical field. If they are correct, the method could be used along with existin
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
salisbury@stanford.edu
415-725-1944
Stanford University
31-Jan-1997


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