NSF Awards $1.6M to UC Davis for Research on Aerogels

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 10, 2005 3:35 pm    Post subject: NSF Awards $1.6M to UC Davis for Research on Aerogels Reply with quote

The recent developments in the field of nanotechnology will soon allow researchers to synthetically mimic living biological systems in the lab, and a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation will facilitate the effort.

Leading the international group of researchers is UC Davis engineering professor Subhash Risbud, who is collaborating with other UC Davis experts and overseas researchers. The basis of their research surrounds a seemingly simple compound known as an aerogel.

At first glance, the silica substance appears no different than any other typical gel — semi-transparent, lightweight — but molecularly, it contains a very valuable function: It behaves like a living cell membrane.

Most artificial membranes scientists are currently studying are lacking in their functionality because they are one-sided. Objects such as proteins can only penetrate the membranes on one side instead of both, contrary to the workings of natural membranes in cells.

The aerogel developed and used by Risbud and his team of researchers — together called the Nanoscale Research Team — is unique in that it is accessible on both sides, just like the lipid bilayers that form actual membranes.

“The idea behind the technology is that you can access and treat an aerogel like a real human cell,” Risbud said, allowing researchers to conduct countless experiments that were once impossible.

Because they are permeable on both sides, instead of just on one like previous models, aerogels are the most accurate synthetic reproductions of living systems, according to Risbud.

And having such lifelike reproductions in the lab will support a variety of applications.

One such use is the detection of diseases in cases in which there is a specific protein that needs to be studied, according to Risbud.

Proteins carry a multitude of functions within a cell, and many reside on cell membranes or interact with them in some way. The research of certain diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, is focused around the function of a single protein.

The Nanoscale Research Team plans to use aerogels to literally visualize how single proteins interact with cell membranes. Each type of aerogel that is developed can be specifically tailored for the study of an individual protein, Risbud said, from its thickness to chemical composition.

Over $30,000 of the grant money went to the purchasing of a special camera that can record the movement of a single protein, showing exactly how it travels through certain types of synthetic membranes under controllable conditions.

According to Risbud, the team will not only test the traffic of molecules through their synthetic silica membranes, but also develop aerogels out of new materials.

“We are working to develop gels that are not only more chemically versatile but also more mechanically robust,” he said. “Right now the silica gel is very fragile and can break down with the addition of water.”

Future aerogel materials will be nontoxic so that they may eventually be used in clinical trials. Possible materials used include aluminum oxide, carbon, and even sugar-based compounds.

Risbud began studying aerogel technology over a decade ago with semiconductor applications and only began applying it to biological applications three to four years ago.

Other members of the project include Roland Faller of UC Davis, Curtis Frank of Stanford University, Joe Satcher of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany, Unilever Research and Development UK in England, and Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.

Source: California Aggie.
URL: http://www.californiaaggie.com/article/?id=10177
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