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Press release | Scientific result | Health ＆ life sciences | Structural biology
Researchers at the CEA, the CNRS and the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble have discovered several mechanical properties, as fascinating as they are unexpected, in microtubules, the main elements in the cell skeleton, and especially their capability of adapting to stress and of self-repair. These discoveries have been possible thanks to the creation of a microfluidic device that makes it possible to attach, fold and measure distortions in microtubules. Microtubules play a crucial role in various processes such as cell division and neuron activity. Their repair dynamic could serve as an inspiration for materials engineering. These results were published in Nature Materials magazine on 7 September 2015.
Microtubules, the main
constituents of internal cell architecture, possess a rigidity that is one
hundred times greater than that of other constituents of the cytoskeleton. For
this reason, they travel through intracellular space in a virtually straight
line, serving as the route for transporting proteins from the centre of the
cell to its periphery. The regulating mechanisms of their mechanical properties
are still virtually unknown, however. Their rigidity can be explained by their
structure, that of a hollow tube, an efficient way, well-known to bicycle
manufacturers, of constructing rigid elements using the least possible amount
of material. These mechanical properties could not be studied in detail
hitherto since the appropriate tools were lacking. A microfluidic device that
can attach itself to microtubules and bend them has been perfected by
researchers at the Plant Cell Physiology Laboratory (CNRS/CEA/INRA/Joseph
Fourier University) and the Interdisciplinary Physics Laboratory (CNRS/Joseph
Scientists isolated the microtubules in
cells in order to overcome the complexity of the intracellular environment and were
thus able to study their intrinsic mechanical properties under simple
conditions. They then used very weak hydrodynamic flows to apply slight, and
well-controlled pressure so as to bend them gently. This is when they
discovered that as the pressure cycles were applied repeatedly, the
microtubules bent to an increasingly great extent but did not break. The application
of external pressure makes them increasingly flexible. Their structure thus
seems to be capable of reorganising itself and adapting to pressure. Even more
surprising, microtubules are capable of rediscovering their initial rigidity if
pressure is interrupted for a few minutes. They repair themselves spontaneously.
CEA is a French government-funded technological research organisation in four main areas: low-carbon energies, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies. A prominent player in the European Research Area, it is involved in setting up collaborative projects with many partners around the world.