Researchers have helped show that short carbon nanotubes can make excellent artificial pores within cell membranes. Moreover, these nanotubes, which are far more rugged than their biological counterparts, can self-insert into a cell membrane or other lipid bilayers.
Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a Foundry staff scientist, worked with Alex Noy, a biophysicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) used lipids to get the nanotubes the right size for a membrane channel. Lipids come together to form double-layered barriers, like the lipid bilayer found in cell membranes. When lipids are mixed with longer nanotubes, the lipids assemble around the tubes, indicating the appropriate length for a membrane-bound nanotube. Once the right-sized nanotubes are cut from the longer tube, their lipid coating allows them to infiltrate a cell membrane spontaneously, as the team demonstrated with human kidney cells and Chinese hamster ovary cells.