A UT Austin Biomedical Engineering professor is one of two principal investigators who received a three-year grant worth $1.5 million for cellular membrane research. Professor Jeanne Stachowiak is working with Professor Padmini Rangamani of UC-San Diego on the project.

Why the research matters:

Understanding what causes membrane curvature is critical to the understanding of all diseases since membrane curvature is required for the life of every cell. Membrane curvature allows for key nutrient transportation in and out of cells while blocking pathogens, such as viruses, from entering cells.

This research project will ultimately provide a more thorough understanding of cellular function and pave the way for the construction of synthetic cells.

About the research:

Diverse classes of proteins within cells have recently been observed to self-assemble into liquid-like droplets. While they were first discovered in the cellular interior, it is increasingly clear that protein droplets frequently become coupled to other cellular structures, including biological membranes and the cell’s cytoskeleton.

Stachowiak will utilize these findings from her lab and work with Rangamani to develop quantitative comparisons using her modeling predictions. The goal of the combined research efforts is to provide a new understanding of soft materials and illustrate concepts that could be applied toward the design of diverse biomaterials.

Phase one of the project will focus on how protein droplets exert forces on biological membranes, resulting in curvature. During phase two of the project, the teams will examine how protein droplets cause the organization of cytoskeletal filaments into bundles and meshes.

The research teams said that they hope their findings will pave the way for a better understanding of how pathogens invade cells, how membrane curvature impacts the internalization of signaling receptors and key nutrient transportation, as well as the fundamental mechanisms that organize soft matter.

Additionally, the researchers aim to use their findings to create a multi-level educational outreach program that will benefit diverse students from K-12 classrooms to undergraduate researchers.