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Mapping the Membrane
24 June 2017

Mapping the Membrane

From transporting substances to and from the cell to blocking pathogens, the cell membrane is on the front line of many key functions. Studying this fragile structure is difficult, but a new technique, based on labelling with stable isotopes of hydrogen, has recently enabled detailed investigations of the cell membrane in a living, intact bacterial cell. A cross-section of Bacillus subtilis shows the cell membrane, formed by two layers of lipids (in blue and red), between the cell wall (above) and the cytoplasm, containing proteins (orange), DNA and RNA (green). Altering the ratio of hydrogen atoms and their stable isotope, deuterium, in membrane lipids affects the way that neutrons, neutral subatomic particles, are scattered by the membrane, allowing nanoscale structures inside it to be revealed. This technique could unlock a new depth of understanding of the structure and function of cellular membranes, with a wide range of potential applications.

Written by Emmanuelle Briolat

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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