EPSRC DTP PhD studentship: Assessing the elasticity of lipid mesophases as a model for plasma membranes by Brillouin microscopy

University of Exeter - College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

Main supervisor: Dr. Peter Petrov (University of Exeter)
Co-supervisor: Dr Francesca Palombo (University of Exeter)

The elasticity of cell membranes has wide implications in vital mechanisms, such as transmembrane transport, cytoskeletal-network modulation and cell-volume regulation.

Lipid mesophases are a useful model system for studying plasma membrane mechanics and its dependence on lipid composition, interaction with proteins and other biologically-relevant solutes.

This project is focused at testing the feasibility of using Brillouin microscopy to imaging the mechanical properties, such as the viscoelastic modulus and compressibility, of lipid systems as a model for plasma membranes. We have previously shown that Brillouin scattering has the capability to provide the full elasticity tensor and mechanical moduli of extracellular matrix protein fibres and connective tissues (Palombo et al. J R Soc Interface 2014). Through a microfocused approach, we also achieved the first application of site-matched Brillouin and Raman microscopy to epithelial tissue, Barrett’s oesophagus (Palombo et al. Analyst 2014 and J. Biophoton. 2016).

While Brillouin microscopy has proven capable of imaging cell biomechanics contactless and with high spatial resolution (Scarcelli et al. Nature Methods 2015), it has only been applied trough the traditional scanning approach to gain bulk elastic properties of flat multilamellar lipid constructs (LePesant et al. PNAS 1978).

This project will develop the application of a new Brillouin imaging microscope to plasma membrane models to assess the mechanical properties using a contactless spatially resolved technique. Once established, we will use this novel method to investigate the elastic properties of a range of lipid mesophases as well as the effect of cholesterol and proteins on membrane elasticity. This will provide a novel, fast and contactless method for evaluation of lipid bilayer elastic constants.

Initially, the student will be involved in setting up and testing a multi-component optical system for Brillouin microscopy, as well as fine tuning the system to suit measurements of the particular systems involved (lipid mesophases). Once established, the technique will allow the student to undertake systematic experiments on evaluating the mechanical properties of a range of lipid mesophases and the effects of protein-lipid interactions on membrane elasticity. At the later stages of the project the student may be able to address the effects of bacterial toxins on membrane mechanics, an area of active research currently in our group. In summary, the student will be able to: build optical systems, gain extensive expertise in preparing and handling biological/soft matter samples, gain expertise in solid mechanics through the analysis of the experimental data, gain extensive expertise in interdisciplinary science and application of physical methods to biological systems.

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South West England