Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Surf's Up

Insight into influences acting on and changing behaviour of surfactants – for example those lining the lung

10 May 2022

Surf's Up

Coating our airways in a sea of shape-shifting molecules, our surfactant mixtures of proteins and fats (lipids) changes how water behaves. Pushing back against water’s natural surface tension, surfactants balance the pressure along the wet surfaces of our lungs, so they can expand and contract more easily. Infections like COVID-19 interfere with these natural mixtures, so here researchers explore how they work. Applying pressure to the blob-like lipids (left to right, top row) squeezes them together, while adding increasing amounts of cholesterol to the mix (bottom two rows) causes a spectacular change. Commonly produced by our cells, cholesterol encourages the lipid blobs to extend curly wave shapes – similar to the crystal-like growth found in snowflakes – that may help surfactant mixtures spread out as we breath. Investigating these patterns, and how they’re disrupted in disease, may be the key to new treatments tackling disorders like atelectasis.

Written by John Ankers

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