Artificial membranes mimicking those found in living organisms have many potential applications, ranging from detecting bacterial contaminants in food to toxic pollution in the environment to dangerous diseases in people. Now a group of scientists in Chile has developed a way to create these delicate, ultra-thin constructs through a "dry" process, by evaporating two commercial, off-the-shelf chemicals onto silicon surfaces. Described online on September 9, 2014 in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing, this is the first time anyone has ever made an artificial membrane without mixing liquid solvents together. And because the new process creates membranes on silicon surfaces, it is a significant step toward creating bio-silicon interfaces, where biological "sensor" molecules can be printed onto cheap silicon chip holding integrated electronic circuits. "Our idea is to create a biosensor that can transmit electrical signals through the membrane," said María José Retamal, a Ph.D. student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and first author of the paper. The importance of lipid membranes to life is hard to overstate. They are a principal component of the cell, as fundamental as DNA or proteins, and all known organisms on Earth, from the tiniest bacteria to the biggest blue whales, use membranes in a multitude of ways. They separate distinct spaces within cells and define walls between neighboring cells -- a functional compartmentalization that serves many physiological processes, protecting genetic material, regulating what comes in and out of cells, and maintaining the function of separate organs.
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