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For the first time: "smart liquids" will be used as sensitive biological sensors

The team of researchers explained that the uniqueness of the smart liquids is that, as a result of their chemical properties, the liquids maintain separation from each other, thus creating distinct droplets

Smart liquid. Credit: The Science website via DALEE. The picture is not a scientific picture
Smart liquid. Credit: The Science website via DALEE. The picture is not a scientific picture

As part of a new study that took place at Tel Aviv University and was published in the journal PNAS, led by Master's student Amit Netzer from the laboratory of Dr. Ila Lampel ofShemunis School of Biomedical Research and Cancer Research בGeorge S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, the possibility of producing a smart liquid that would serve as a sensor in its own right was presented for the first time.

The uniqueness of the research, in which other researchers from the laboratory also participated, including Itai Katzir and Dr. Abigail Baruch Leshem, as well as Dr. Michal Whitman from Bar Ilan University, stems from the fact that the liquid state of aggregation opens the door to the use of the smart materials in a variety of uses, which were not possible until now with materials Wise men of solid character.

The team of researchers explained that the uniqueness of the smart liquids is that, as a result of their chemical properties, the liquids maintain separation from one another, thus creating distinct drops, which are condensates - tiny drops of balsamic vinegar floating in olive oil. By accurately modeling the structure and composition of the molecules within those condensates, researchers can determine what to react to and how to change depending on the environment.

In previous studies, Dr. Lampel demonstrated how to create the condensates so that they release the charge they contain in response to light - a development that may be used in the future for the controlled release of drugs in the body, as well as for other uses. In the new study, Dr. Lampel sought to examine a different approach to using the smart liquids, so that they would be used as "optical sensors" - which would change the color and intensity of their fluorescence in the presence and response to a specific enzyme. 

According to Dr. Lampel, the research was inspired by processes that occur in nature. "Inside the cells in our body there are a large number of organelles that are used for different purposes, for example as mini-factories for the production of molecules that are required for the existence and functioning of the cell. Some of those organelles are surrounded by a membrane, but others differ from the general cell environment in a process called phase separation between liquids - which results from a large number of weak interactions that occur between the molecules that make up the organelle, and together create the separation from the rest of the environment and the creation of a condensate with a unique microenvironment."

Dr. Lampel added: "In cells, these condensates usually consist of a mixture of proteins and nucleic acids - the genetic material of the cell. Complete proteins, which are built from hundreds of amino acids, are challenging to work with in the laboratory. That's why we use 'mini-proteins' that are built from short chains of amino acids instead of long proteins. Due to their short length, the mini-proteins do not fold and remain without a stable structure, and it is this flexibility that allows them to produce the interactions with the nucleic acids that create the phase separation and the condensates." 

The goal: creating condensates for a wide variety of uses

At the same time, and with the help of research conducted on the amino acid sequences common in condensates that exist in nature, Dr. Lampel and other researchers in the field identified sequences that play key roles in the creation of a variety of different condensates in the cells of the body. "This understanding allows us to use different sequences like Lego blocks in the design of our mini-proteins to control the specific functions we want them to have," she adds. 

"We wanted to see if we could design capacitors that would be used as sensors. Melanin, the pigment that determines our skin color, is created in the body when a certain enzyme oxidizes an amino acid called tyrosine. High levels of the enzyme characterize various skin diseases, from hyperpigmentation to melanoma. Therefore, we decided to design our mini-protein to contain tyrosine. As a result, when we added the enzyme to the liquid, it oxidized the mini-proteins and changed their optical properties - making them fluorescent. In this way, we showed that it is possible to produce a smart liquid that will be used as a biological sensor, in this case for the presence of the enzyme." 

Now, Dr. Lampel and her colleagues are working on designing consonants with a variety of other features. "We are trying to discover and expand the uses and capabilities of what can be done with smart liquids." Thus, for example, beyond the production of sensitive biological sensors, with the help of precise control of the phase separation, it is possible to design smart liquids that will be used for the efficient and simple production of medicines that today, to produce them on an industrial scale, require complex and expensive conditions. 

Dr. Lampel also predicts that in the future the condensates will be able to be used as tools for transporting drugs into the body, and will even be used as tiny factories that produce the drugs inside us.

Dr. Lampel concludes: "This is a completely new field of research. He still doesn't know what he is and why he is good. But it is expanding rapidly. You can see this in the large number of patents and articles in the field that are published every month." 

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