Bacteria and other microorganisms interact in complex and unique ways within people. This interaction is hard to mimic in a lab when cells are trapped inside glass, plastic or silicon petri dishes, which allows their waste products to build up against the barrier of impermeable, inorganic material.
Now, biology researchers are creating customized lab gear made from natural materials to better administer their research. Their results could shed new light on how bacteria responsible for certain diseases interact with cells in the human body.
"One of the bacteria we use is a chief pathogen in the lung in cystic fibrosis,” says Jason Shear, the University of Texas chemistry professor who led the study published today in the journal PNAS. “We can put these cells in a glass box that’s nothing like the lung, or a box made of a protein called mucin - a primary component of mucus.”
In addition to housing cells in more natural material, another part of this research attempts to mimic their natural organization. “If I wanted to, for instance, look at how cancer cells migrate through model tissue - if it’s a brain cancer cell or bone cancer cell - I want to be able to make materials that feel more like its native environment.”
To create such an environment, Shear and his colleagues devised a new method to create structures made of protein. Cells are placed in a gelatin mold while a laser beam shapes the material around them to make these unique structures.
The goal of the ongoing research is to catalog how the cells change and react in different organizations. Once this is complete, says Shear, scientists will have a Rosetta stone for understanding how pathogens, like those in cystic fibrosis-infected lungs, act in the human body.
Top image: 3-D image reconstructions based on confocal fluorescence microscopy data. Courtesy Jason Shear / PNAS.