Under observation

November 1, 2013
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2013

Integrins are a bit like magicians: we can see the amazing things they do, but we don’t quite understand exactly how they do it. Located in a cell’s outer plasma membrane, these proteins translate external, mechanical cues into internal, chemical signals within the cell, among other important biological functions. Observing integrins in action, however, has proved difficult. But scientists now have a better way to study them experimentally. Bioengineering and mechanical engineering professor Mohammad Mofrad and bioengineering graduate student Mehrdad Mehrbod have created a computer model of integrins that allows scientists to study how these proteins work. As in real life, their simulated integrin is about 20 nanometers long and reacts to external stimuli. The researchers have already used the model to learn more about how integrins are activated, and they hope it will eventually lead to advances in cancer and atherosclerosis research.