What's the difference between a lifeless sack of chemicals and a living cell? It's all in the way they're organized, according to Stanford biophysical chemist Steven Boxer. With colleagues at Stanford, the University of California-Davis and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he has developed a way to image cell membranes with unprecedented resolution-on the order of 100 nanometers, a scale larger than individual molecules but much smaller than entire cells. Understanding the chemical composition and organization of cell membranes-what components reside next to each other, how many of each there are and how they respond to their environment-may reveal the secret lives of cells in both health and disease. The researchers report their findings in the Sept. 29 issue of the journal Science.
''The organization of components in biological membranes leads to function,'' Boxer, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Professor in Chemistry, said in an interview in his office on campus. The Biophysical Society recently named Boxer one of five Fellows and praised his ''seminal contributions and advancement of the field of biophysics through his groundbreaking research in several areas: supported membranes, Stark effect spectroscopy of proteins, properties of autofluorescent proteins and photosynthetic reaction centers.''
Boxer's collaborators included chemistry postdoctoral fellow Mary Kraft of Stanford, who isotopically labeled the lipids used in the experiments, prepared the samples and performed all the measurements, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Marjorie Longo at the University of California-Davis, whose earlier work on phase-separated membranes on surfaces inspired the system used in the work, and scientists Peter Weber and Ian Hutcheon, both experts in imaging mass spectrometry at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), who provided access to the state-of-the-art machine used in the experiments.