New funding worth over £5 million from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is helping scientists to design fully functioning artificial membranes for research, clinical applications and the biotech industry.
Biological membranes comprise a double layer of oily molecules with different protein molecules embedded within them, and are an essential and versatile part of every cell. They help to define the cell’s function, for example by actively regulating what can enter and leave, and by controlling how the cell senses and reacts to its surroundings. Membranes are flexible and able to change shape spontaneously, and help the cell do things like move around, exchange chemical signals, or divide in two.
Thanks to sophisticated analytical techniques, scientists have been able to replicate some of these vital functions in the laboratory, but more research is needed before artificial membranes can perform the full range of roles required of them.
The team has identified three main challenges to creating an artificial membrane: how the membrane differs between its internal and external facing layers; how the membrane forms specialised patches that enable the cell to interact with its external environment, for example via chemical signals or direct contact between cells; and how the cell controls the curvature of its membrane during dynamic processes such as cell division.