Lab Talk: antifreeze and skin patches

Two researchers discuss recent papers that excited their interest.

Natural antifreeze doesn’t just work on ice

Matthew Gibson

Insects and other organisms living in extremely cold temperatures avoid lethal ice crystals forming inside their bodies by making their own antifreeze. Specialised proteins circulate and stick to the surface of any ice crystal that starts to form, halting its growth.

This study shows that some antifreeze proteins found in fish and beetles don’t just work with ice crystals – they can also control the crystallisation of a sugar, methyl-mannose. This is surprising given the proteins evolved to recognise ice surfaces. It suggests they could be engineered for the many other applications.

The ability to limit or control crystal growth would be invaluable in the oil industry to prevent components of crude oil crystallising and blocking pipes. The pharmaceutical industry also needs to control the way drug molecules crystallise because it affects their activity.

Paper: Molecular Recognition of Methyl alpha-D-Mannopyranoside by Antifreeze (Glyco)Proteins. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2014, vol 136, p8973–8981.

Electric skin patches to sense health issues

Robert Gorkin

People with cardiovascular disease or stroke can live in constant danger of a relapse. But how to watch for tell-tale warning signs when they are not in hospital for observation? Now, scientists have developed an advanced “lab-on-a-patch” to tackle the challenge.

The device is stuck on like a Band-Aid and keeps tabs on vital signs using electronics that can stretch and flex with the skin, making it comfortable to wear. The flexibility is made possible using curvy wires that “float” in special microfluidic compartments. The flexibility allows sensors to hug close to the body, even on active patients.

The patch contains a wireless transmitter to send data or call for help and could be used to monitor physiological metrics such as heart rate and body temperature, record physical activity or detect falls in the elderly. This work represents an important step towards the era of ‘digital healthcare’, where wearable technology could revolutionise how ailments are diagnosed in real-time.

Paper: Soft Microfluidic Assemblies of Sensors, Circuits, and Radios for the Skin. Science, 2014, vol 344, p70-74.

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