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See Inside November 2007

A Simple Mimic

Water droplets encased in fat simulate cell membranes

Adouble layer of fat marks the property line that separates DNA, mitochondria, the endoplasmic reticulum and the rest of the elaborate internal machinery from everything that exists beyond the confines of a cell. Molecules of protein that poke through this lipid bilayer serve as communication channels for incoming and outgoing messages that regulate the body’s most basic activities.

Biologists have tried for decades to produce a simple model of the cell’s plasma membrane, particularly the openings to the outside world known as ion channels. The goal is not just academic. More than 60 ion-channel gene mutations have been linked to human diseases. Some drugs that target ion channels have achieved blockbuster status. Pharmaceutical companies could deploy such a model to simulate how new drugs interact with membrane proteins.

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