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Artificial Cells Help Probe Inner Workings of Biology

Artificial cells viewed under a light microscope – on the left are transmitted light images, on the right are fluorescence images. The top panels show spherical structures that have two types of lipid molecule in the membrane (red and green), as well as two different polymers in the aqueous interior. In the lower panels, a sucrose solution has been added outside the model cell, causing the cell to lose water due to osmosis, concentrating the polymer solution inside. The structure buds, with the different lipid- and aqueous-phase domains going to opposite ends, providing a very simple chemical polarity in the model cell. (Image credit: Meghan Andes-Koback and Christine Keating, Penn State University)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Christine Keating, an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State, works to solve current problems in medicine, device manufacturing, and cell biology by improving our understanding of the relationships between structure and function for nano- to micro-scale objects and assemblies. In one area of her research, artificial cells filled with synthetic cytoplasm are capable of microcompartmentation, which is characteristic of living cells and is thought to have profound implications for cell function. She also has developed bar-coded metallic nanowires, nanowires encoded with stripes of different metals. In biological experiments and tests, the wires can tag various biological components, multiplying the number of bioassays that can be performed at once. Conventional fluorescence optical microscopes — which are available in laboratories, hospitals, and many clinics — could identify the nanowires and read the assays, and eventually, electronic devices might provide direct readouts for the tests. Keating's work in developing methods to assemble biologically tagged wires into specific locations on a circuit board may ultimately lead to handheld, ultra-portable devices to recognize a wide variety of environmental or medical compounds. Eventually, controlled assembly of biologically tagged or bar-coded nanowires may allow for standard manufacturing of combination bio chips and integrated circuit chips. For more on Keating's work, see the press release "Simple Model Cell is Key to Understanding Cell Complexity" and the press release "Easy assembly of electronic biological chips."  For more on Keating, read her answers to the ScienceLives 10 Questions below.

Name: Christine Keating Age: 40 Institution: Pennsylvania State University Field of Study: Chemistry, materials science

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I started out in biology, because I am inspired by the natural world and I find biological questions fascinating. After my sophomore year of college, I had two options for summer employment: one was field work counting salamanders, and the other was in a physical chemistry/materials lab. I chose the latter because it offered both a higher stipend and air-conditioning. The experience changed my life. I loved both the science, which was so much more interesting than anything I had seen in class, and the people, who came from all parts of the globe and brought a wonderful diversity of both scientific and cultural points of view. Now, my lab applies chemical and materials approaches to questions of biological importance.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Pay attention to whatever is most important to you before dealing with everything else that must be done.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I was more of an observer than an experimenter growing up. I spent much of my time out wandering in the woods, identifying plants and the tracks of animals.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? I have a lot of freedom to select research directions that I find important and interesting, and I get to work with fantastic people.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? Enthusiasm. It isn't enough by itself, but if you aren't excited about the work, nothing else matters.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Our work on artificial cells may help elucidate the role of intracellular organization in a host of different cellular functions. Ultimately, we hope that new approaches to treating disease, based on changing the way that molecules are organized inside of cells, could result from this work. Along the way, we are developing sensors and finding new ways of encapsulating molecules inside drug delivery vehicles.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? My undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral research mentors. They were all "larger-than-life" and great to work with; I learned much from each of them.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? How much creativity is involved; how different it is from their experiences in undergraduate or high school chemistry courses.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My students, of course. Everything else is replaceable.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? This varies. Right now Paul Simon, Great Big Sea, and the music from "Road to Perdition."

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.