"It turns out that most cells in our bodies are not really floating around but are anchored to surfaces, a scaffold or matrix of insoluble proteins between them," said Mrksich, an organic chemist at the University of Chicago. "And furthermore, that attachment isn't passive the matrix guides cells in their behavior and actions, and in turn cells have ways of remodeling the structure of the matrix."
Mrksich and his research team aim to figure out exactly how the cells and matrix "talk" to each other. In one test, chemists chop up a matrix protein, fix the pieces to a plate, and wash cells over the surface. Where the cells stick means binding between matrix and cellular proteins, and thus communication, can take place.
"Our whole approach to the problem is to take this very complicated system and dissect it, and with that information be able to create very simple mimics of the matrix so we can study it in controlled experiments," Mrksich said.
"Milan Mrksich is well on the way to being a top star," wrote a colleague for his award nomination. Mrksich is also a member of the Defense Sciences Research Council, a board of experts who advise the U.S. Department of Defense on its projects and research priorities.
As a boy, "I always had an interest in understanding things I'd see. Early on that meant playing with a chemistry set I'd see a color change and wonder what really happened," he remembered. "Now I'm playing with the ultimate Tinker Toy set ... but it goes way beyond that. We, and everything around us, are what we are because of the molecules that make us."