Vesicle Chemistry: A New Way To Get Life-Like Reactions

The chemistry of life is different from chemistry at large, in part because it takes place in tiny containers called cells.

So chemists at Stanford University, working with researchers at the University of Göteborg in Sweden and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., have found a way to make tiny, cell-sized containers, called vesicles, and use them to study the chemical reactions of biological molecules in an environment that closely mimics the interior of a living cell.

"We now have the world's smallest test tubes," says Richard N. Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor of Chemistry at Stanford, who headed the research effort reported in the March 19 issue of the journal Science. The ability to study chemical reactions in cell-like containers has a number of possible applications. Among them are:

  • Investigating important parts of the cell's metabolism including accumulation and release of neurotransmitters and synthesis of proteins;
  • Examining the biochemistry of cells infected with pathogens;
  • Delivering drugs and genes to single cells.

"In the past, when studying the chemistry of life, we had two basic choices: to experiment 'in vivo' -- in living cells -- or 'in vitro' -- in glass containers. Now we have a third choice, that is in-between the two, but much closer to 'in vivo,'" Zare says of the vesicle approach.

Producing this new form of micro-chemistry begins by creating tiny vesicles that contain a single chemical compound. The researchers found that they can reliably create these membrane sacs in a few minutes. They do so by floating a layer of artificial membrane on the surface of a mixture of a desired chemical and a suitable solvent, such as a mixture of alcohol and water, and then causing the solvent to boil away by lowering the air pressure above the membrane. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind vesicles filled with the desired chemical that range in size from 50 microns to 50 nanometers in

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Stanford University

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