Cells Go Fractal

An article was published in the scientific magazine “Nature” called “Cells go fractal” on September 4th. The article reported on the findings of research done at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) as it was published at the ‘2009 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) conference’ held in Amsterdam.

Experiments done by Sebastien Huet and Aurélien Bancaud in a research group led by Jan Ellenberg at the EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany, tracked the movement of molecules within cells, this was then compared the pattern of movement against mathematical models. It was found that, large molecules moved according to the same rules as small molecules, suggesting that their environment was therefor fractal.

The researches were able to track the behaviour of the cells by means of injecting live mouse cells in a lab dish with fluorescent molecules. They were able to track the molecules with this special type of imaging in microbiology called fluorescence microsopy. The study focused on how cells can keep track of gene activity or gene expression through chromatins in the cell nucleus.  Basically this process takes place to ensure the right molecules interact with each other at the right time and in the right place in the cells. Huet and Bancaud found that the molecules moved as if they were having to navigate obstacles (but there are no barriers, as they exist in other parts of the cell) to navigate around in the cell nucleus. When the team looked at the behaviour of different sized molecules, they saw that large molecules were obstructed to the same degree as small molecules in the cell nucleus.


A cell displays chromatin (green) and a molecule used for tracking (red).It was furthermore discovered by studying how proteins, bound to different kinds of chromatin (namely Euchromatin and Heterochromatin), moved around in the cells and found that the different types of chromatin were fractal in different ways. Meaning molecules behaved differently for each type of chromatin with its own distinct fractal characteristics. All this information could be used to learn exactly how cells use a fractal structure to change the behaviour of proteins to change particular DNA sequences and skip whole other parts of the DNA sequence. It’s also expected that with insight into these fractal structures researches can learn how to better target certain areas of DNA for study or perhaps in the future even for new types of treatment for disease.







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