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Modeling Membranes – Steven Abel

Computational modeling is an invaluable tool allowing for the study of the behavior of a complex system via computer simulation, providing scientists with an opportunity for accelerated discovery.

Applying this tool to the study of cellular membranes, Dr. Steven Abel’s JDRD team seeks to uncover a deeper fundamental understanding of cell membranes and how they are spatially organized. Cell membranes are lipid bilayers composed of hundreds of different lipids and associated proteins, and are the parts of a cell that control its interactions with its environment; what material goes in and out, what proteins at the membrane transmit information about the environment and so forth.

The spatial organization of lipids and proteins within cell membranes plays a key role in a number of biological processes, including immune cell recognition of antigens and viral entry into cells. A better understanding of membrane organization could impact a variety of disciplines, ranging from immunology to drug design to the design of biomimetic materials.

Abel solo final“I have a long standing interest in membranes,” said Abel. “My group approaches the problem from a computational and theoretical perspective, so teaming up with Dr. Pat Collier and his experimental team at ORNL was a great match.”

Working in conjunction with Dr. Collier’s ORNL team, which is using nanostructured scaffolds to alter lipid bilayers, Abel’s team developed mathematical models of the interactions between these scaffolds and cell membranes to determine how the scaffolding’s presence affects the lipids.

The computational model created by this project has the potential to benefit future experiments by testing the relative importance of various physical properties and probing parameter space for interesting behavior to guide experimental design.