Biomembrane – Festival Of The Mind 2016

I am delighted to present my newest mural here – a collaboration with CBMNet at the University Of Sheffield, in conjunction with Festival Of The Mind 2016 / Fear of the Unseen: Engineering Good Bacteria.

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The ‘Crossing Biological Membranes Network’ is composed of scientists working to understand the mechanisms by which substances are transported into, within, and out of cells. Their ultimate aim is to produce knowledge which will enable the development of new technologies in the Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy sector (eg: producing biofuels using E coli bacteria).

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My role in this collaboration has been to translate the CBMNet area of work into a large outdoor mural located within the university campus. For this occasion I have presented my interpretation of a detail of a cell membrane as seen under an electron microscope, having undergone a cryofracture. A cryofracture is  a procedure in which the sample is frozen quickly and then  broken with a sharp blow so you are able to study its structure in very close detail – Imagine breaking a bar of chocolate with hazelnuts, this way you can see how hazelnuts are positioned inside the bar…

For an online animation of a biomembrane cryofracture follow this link: http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/530082/view

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There is an incredible amount of information available about the structure & functioning of a biological membrane, and many ways to interpret this artistically. I chose to stick with the basic knowledge that biomembranes are mainly composed of the following molecules: phopholipids, cholesterol, proteins and carbohydrate ramifications (see diagram below), and that at any moment smaller molecules are transiting through it in both directions. All these elements are represented on the final visual.

 

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Above: Diagram of a small portion of cell membrane

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Learning the structure of biological membranes was one of my favourite topics during my PhD because it involved lots of drawing. Typically a biomembrane is made of two thin lipid sheets stuck together with large elements (proteins) inserted through them. In a cell, this molecular ensemble surrounds and prevents the inside of the cell from being in contact with the outside of the cell. This structure is highly dynamic: proteins move within this ‘bilayer’ in 2 dimensions to specific locations when the cell needs it. In order to represent this in an accurate diagram, you need to draw a 3 dimensions structure, which mostly had 2 dimensional capabilities, on a (2 dimensional) piece of paper – woo ha!

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This project was made possible by Festival Of The Mind and BBSRC.  Thank you Jen Vanderhoven from CBMNet for inviting me and Mika Ohtsuki for helping out with the mural. A projection of a short documentary about the project is planned on Sept 19 at Spiegeltent FOTM: Fear of the Unseen: Engineering Good Bacteria

 

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