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Membranes and Life


Project: NanoMembR - Nanoscale Effects within Biological Membranes caused by Radiation

Funding: European Commission, Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme

All life on Earth is based on cellular units that require membranes as a means to separate their interior from the surrounding environment. The plasma membrane of a cell is a fascinating organelle and a fundamentally essential part, responsible for its shape, structure and functioning. Thus membranes, and more generally their building blocks (e.g. fatty acids, lipids and sterols), are universal biomarkers for life. Biological membranes have long been a ‘hot topic’ of research across many disciplines, from biology and biochemistry, with a focus on cellular physiology, to physics, with respect to the underlying mechanistic phenomena, and applied sciences, in the attempt to mimic the natural virtues of membranes in high-value products and processes (e.g. liposomes for drug delivery, micro-filtration systems, for separation and molecule immobilisation as well as biosensor applications). More recently, biomembranes have attracted the interest of the space science community engaged in the search of robust and identifiable signatures – biosignatures or biomarkers - that are conserved across all life forms and hence suitable for the detection of life.

Electromagnetic radiation is a key-driver for biochemical processes on our planet and even more on planets (e.g. Mars) with thinner atmospheres or even in open space environments and planetary orbits. Solar radiation, despite being a constant source of energy, can also have detrimental effects for life. Membranes represent a first point of exposure and research into the detailed effects of radiation damage by studying spatio-temporal pathways of membrane degradation and fragmentation has important implications not only for radiation biology and medicine but also for planetary exploration.

Our understanding of membrane structure and functionality has progressed step-by-step with the advances in technological and analytical capabilities, and lately by the breakthrough in microscopy with superresolution and single molecule spectroscopy. These techniques have reached unprecedented levels of resolution and sensitivity that enable us now to look deep into membranes at the nanometre-scale.