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We have discovered several mechanical properties, as fascinating as they are unexpected, in microtubules, the main elements in the cell skeleton, and especially their capability of adapting to stress and of self-repair. These discoveries have been possible thanks to the creation of a microfluidic device that makes it possible to attach, fold and measure distortions in microtubules. Microtubules play a crucial role in various processes such as cell division and neuron activity. Their repair dynamic could serve as an inspiration for materials engineering. These results were published in Nature Materials magazine on 7 September 2015.
Microtubules, the main constituents of internal cell architecture, possess a rigidity that is one hundred times greater than that of other constituents of the cytoskeleton. For this reason, they travel through intracellular space in a virtually straight line, serving as the route for transporting proteins from the centre of the cell to its periphery. The regulating mechanisms of their mechanical properties are still virtually unknown, however. Their rigidity can be explained by their structure, that of a hollow tube, an efficient way, well-known to bicycle manufacturers, of constructing rigid elements using the least possible amount of material. These mechanical properties could not be studied in detail hitherto since the appropriate tools were lacking. A microfluidic device that can attach itself to microtubules and bend them has been perfected by researchers at the Plant Cell Physiology Laboratory (CNRS/CEA/INRA/Joseph Fourier University) and the Interdisciplinary Physics Laboratory (CNRS/Joseph Fourier University).
CEA is a French government-funded technological research organisation in four main areas: low-carbon energies, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies. A prominent player in the European Research Area, it is involved in setting up collaborative projects with many partners around the world.