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Maths grant for international research on biomaterials

Dr Tanniemola Liverpool

Dr Tanniemola Liverpool Paul Groom

24 July 2008

Dr Tanniemola Liverpool of the Department of Mathematics has been awarded a grant worth US $810,000 as part of an international, collaborative project of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Materials World Network entitled ‘Microscopic models of cross-linked active gels’.

The project will support an international collaboration of joint research between the University of Bristol, Syracuse University, USA and the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. It will strengthen an already existing collaboration between the US and the UK groups and establish a new one with South Africa. The project will provide funds for post-doctoral research associates and PhD students to be based in the Bristol and Syracuse groups, as well as funds for travel between all three groups. The project is funded jointly by the NSF (USA), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) and National Research Foundation (South Africa).

The study of soft biological matter is emerging as an important new direction in materials research. Its highly international profile is evident from the increasing number of major initiatives taking place around the world.

Active materials are a new class of soft materials maintained out of equilibrium by internal energy sources. There are many examples in biological contexts, including bacterial colonies and the cell cytoskeleton. The key property that distinguishes active matter from more familiar non-equilibrium soft systems, such as a fluid under shear, is that the energy input that maintains the system out of equilibrium comes from each constituent, rather than the boundaries. Each active particle consumes and dissipates energy going through a cycle that fuels internal changes, generally leading to motion.

The eukaryotic cell cytoskeleton is a perfect example of this ‘novel’ type of active material. The cytoskeleton allows the cell to carry out co-ordinated and directed movements, such as cell crawling, muscle contraction and all the changes in cell shape in the developing embryo. The cytoskeleton also supports intracellular movements, such as the transport of organelles in the cytoplasm and the segregation of chromosomes during cell division. However, many aspects of how these processes occur remains a mystery.

The aim of the project is to study a specific active system: the effect of molecular motors and other associated proteins on the collective dynamical and mechanical properties of cross-linked cytoskeletal filament gels, which can be compared directly through experiments. A better understanding of the processes controlling the complex mechanical properties of the cytoskeleton can lead to important advances for the design of a new generation of smart materials at the nanoscale.

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