#weekendusers How do nanoparticles gain access into membranes?


A team from the University of Bristol (UK) has spent this weekend on XMAS beamline, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, trying to unveil how nanoparticles interact with model membranes. This research is interesting not only from a health perspective but also in the development of new materials, such as nanocomposites.

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Friday night. The average age of the people inside the control hutch of the XMAS beamline or BM28 can’t be more than 30. The night is young and so are the researchers that are attentively observing the computer screens. They all seem to be thrilled about being at the ESRF, as they crack jokes while acquiring data. Leading them is Wuge Briscoe, lecturer at the University of Bristol (UK), who explains proudly that his staff is funded both by industry and by international government grants from places as far as Thailand or Mexico. “The scope of this fundamental research can benefit a lot of different disciplines, and the fact that we have students funded by very different companies shows that there is a lot of interest”, explains Briscoe.


Part of the team on Friday morning. 

Population is enduring an increasing exposure of nanomaterials in recent years and scientists don’t have a clear idea of what happens to nanoparticles when they get inside our bodies. Membranes are the final defense of our body before the nanoparticles enter the cells. Briscoe and his team have developed model membrane systems to track the detailed structural change of membranes in the presence of nanoparticles. For this, they use X-ray reflectivity on BM28: “It is a very rigorous technique that offers insight into the structual change. Ultimately we want to find out how nanoparticles interact with organised soft matter in general”, says Briscoe. “A challenging aspect of the experiment is that the structual change is dynamic, so that we have to adjust our measurements as the data is collected, based on careful observations and sometimes physical intuitions, without mentioning plentiful of debates”, he adds.

So are the sleepless nights worth it? “It has been a very fruitful experiment, and we have observed pronounced changes in lipid bilayer structures at the solid-liquid interface in the presence of dendritic polymer nanoparticles. Apart from that, we have even managed to go out for a fondue one night!”

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Two moments on the beamline at night... working hard overnight takes its tolls! (on top of very good scientists, the team from the University of Bristol are also very good actors...).

Text and photos by Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Top image: The team on the beamline getting the set-up ready.