At one time, the cell membrane was thought of as something like a building block made of lipids. Suzan Mazur interviews Swedish physical chemist Tommy Nylander about the study of living cells through neutron scattering (to avoid contamination, the Swedes do the studies without nuclear power or mercury) at Oscillations:
Tommy Nylander:I’m very interested in different structures that can occur in living cells. In particular, structures generated by lipids, or fats, if you want. Previously lipids were considered as only a building block with no or very minute function. Merely a support.
Suzan Mazur: Cell membranes are made of lipids.
Tommy Nylander: Yes. Today it’s realized that lipids can perform various functions that can be very important for cell maintenance and various cellular processes. I’d like to know more about how biomolecules interact with cell membranes, which are curved, and with lipids that form at this curved membrane.
There has been increased attention to this aspect of biological interface. Neutrons are especially useful for the study of lipids and other biomolecules. You can play a bit of a trick with something called selective deuteration, since ordinary water and heavy water have very different scattering properties.
When we do neutron scattering, this is what enables us to look at one part of a molecule at a time. We then mix H2O and deuterium oxide or D2O — ordinary water and heavy water to match out different parts of structure. That is really the power of neutrons.
Another important aspect of neutrons is that they are not so harmful. Neutrons can pass through matter more easily than X-rays and they don’t destroy cells. Suzan Mazur, ““Neutrons for Society”—A Chat with Sweden’s Tommy Nylander” at Oscillations
Sometimes, research in cell biology must seem like getting hold of the equipment needed to climb a cliff and then finding a quite unexpected landscape on the other side. When we didn’t know much about lipids, we assumed that they did not have many functions. Neutron scattering is probably going to open up many such landscapes.
See also: Suzan Mazur interview on Neutron scattering: A window into the development of living cells