The membrane is a really important part of a cell—it keeps the organelles and useful chemicals in, and other things out. But the membrane also needs to be selectively permeable, letting in the right molecules (like DNA or proteins) when they approach the cell or molecules that the cell needs to survive, like water. Though scientists have been able to make synthetic membranes, used to make things like pharmaceuticals and to treat water, they haven’t been able to make them permeable like in the natural world. But according to a paper published recently in Nature, a team of international researchers has been able to make both artificial and natural membranes permeable by inserting carbon nanotubes.
Over the past several years, scientists have found lots of uses for carbon nanotubes, using them in everything from stretchy screens to super powered fertilizers. But this is the first time that they have worked to transport materials through cell membranes. The researchers found that, if they coated the tubes with lipids (fatty substances), they slid into the cell membrane, puncturing it without destroying it. Most impressively, it doesn’t appear to leak around the edges. By giving the nanotubes a slight charge, the researchers found that they could selectively transport certain molecules, just like channels in natural membranes.
The researchers are excited about potential applications for newly porous membranes, which haven’t been fully explored. They might look into biological applications, such as artificial lungs or kidneys, though the channels may have to become a bit more selective before that is possible.