All living cells are wrapped in a double-layered membrane of oily lipid molecules. Cell membranes are studded with proteins and other molecules, governing how food and wastes get in and out of a cell, how cells signal to and react to their environment, and how they divide and grow.
Currently, researchers studying artificial membranes mount them on solid substrates such as gold, glass or polymers, but that means that only one side of the membrane is accessible, said Subhash Risbud, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis and principal investigator on the project.
Using the porous aerogel as a support, the researchers should be able to access and study both sides of the membrane.
"The hope is to build artificial membrane systems that are as close to a biological membrane as we can get right now," said Marjorie Longo, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UC Davis.
The studies could lead to new insights into how real cell membranes behave, for example in the platelet cells that form blood clots.
Other members of the project are Roland Faller, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, UC Davis; Curtis Frank, Stanford University; Joe Satcher, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany; Unilever Research and Development U.K in England, and Helsinki University of Technology in Finland.