IMAGE: UCI professor Peter Burke, here holding an atomic model of graphene, and his team created a graphene sensor to monitor changes in mitochondria — which led to the research revelations. view more
Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI
Irvine, Calif., Nov. 2, 2016 – Employing a novel sensor made of graphene – a one-atom-thin layer of carbon – University of California, Irvine researchers have gained new insight into the process of programmed cell death in mitochondria, possibly opening the door to new ways of forcing cancer cells to self-destruct. They also hit a scientific jackpot of sorts by finding that an accepted paradigm of how cells create energy is only half-right.
For a study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, Peter Burke, UCI professor of electrical engineering & computer science, biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering & materials science, and his team – along with collaborators at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania – created an electronic method of monitoring changes in the mitochondria that could indicate the start of the cell’s self-annihilation process.
Hundreds, even thousands of mitochondria, each with an inner and an outer membrane, exist within each of our cells. Known as the cells’ power plants, they metabolize energy from carbohydrates and fats to create energy that the cells can use and store it as voltage across their surfaces. But they also have a secondary role: regulating a cell’s life-death pathway.
Burke and his colleagues tethered about 10,000 purified mitochondria, separated from their cells, to a graphene sensor via antibodies capable of recognizing a protein in their outer membranes. The graphene’s qualities allowed it to function as a dual-mode sensor; its exceptional electrical sensitivity let researchers gauge fluctuations in the acidity levels surrounding the mitochondria, while its optical transparency enabled the use …