Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Ferroelectric switching seen in biological tissues


Measurements taken at the molecular scale have for the first time confirmed a key property that could improve our knowledge of how the heart and lungs function.

University of Washington researchers have shown that a favorable electrical property is present in a type of protein found in organs that repeatedly stretch and retract, such as the lungs, heart and arteries. These findings are the first that clearly track this phenomenon, called ferroelectricity, occurring at the molecular level in biological tissues.

Matthew Zelisko, University of Houston

An illustration of the molecular structure of tropoelastin, the smallest unit of the protein elastin.

The researchers published their findings online June 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We wanted to bring in different experimental techniques, evidence and theoretical understanding of ferroelectricity in biological functions,” said Jiangyu Li, a UW professor of mechanical engineering and corresponding author of the paper. “We certainly have much more confidence now in the phenomenon itself.”

Ferroelectricity is a response to an electric field in which a molecule switches from having a positive to a negative charge. This switching process in synthetic materials serves as a way to power computer memory chips, display screens and sensors. This property only recently has been discovered in animal tissues and researchers think it may help build and support healthy connective tissues in mammals.

A research team led by Li first discovered ferroelectric properties in biological tissues in 2012, then in 2013 found that glucose can suppress this property in the body’s connective tissues, wherever the protein elastin is present. But while ferroelectricity is a proven entity in synthetic materials and has long been thought to be important in biological functions, its actual existence in biology hasn’t been firmly established.

This study proves that ferroelectric switching happens in the biological protein elastin. When the researchers looked at the base structures within the protein, they saw similar behavior to the unit cells of solid-state materials, where ferroelectricity is well understood.

“When we looked at the smallest structural unit of the biological tissue and how it was organized into a larger protein fiber, we then were able to see similarities to the classic ferroelectric model found in solids,” Li said.

The researchers wanted to establish a more concrete, precise way of verifying ferroelectricity in biological tissues. They used small samples of elastin taken from a pig’s aorta and poled the tissues using an electric field at high temperatures. They then measured the current with the poling field removed and found that the current switched direction when the poling electric field was switched, a sign of ferroelectricity.

They did the same thing at room temperature using a laser as the heat source, and the current also switched directions.

Then, the researchers tested for this behavior on the smallest-possible unit of elastin, called tropoelastin, and again observed the phenomenon. They concluded that this switching property is “intrinsic” to the molecular make-up of elastin.

The next step is to understand the biological and physiological significance of this property, Li said. One hypothesis is that if ferroelectricity helps elastin stay flexible and functional in the body, a lack of it could directly affect the hardening of arteries.

“We may be able to use this as a very sensitive technique to detect the initiation of the hardening process at a very early stage when no other imaging technique will be able to see it,” Li said.

The team also is looking at whether this property plays a role in normal biological functions, perhaps in regulating the growth of tissue.

Co-authors are Pradeep Sharma at the University of Houston, Yanhang Zhang at Boston University, and collaborators at Nanjing University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the UW.


For more information, contact Li at or 206-543-6226.

Michelle Ma | Eurek Alert!

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht New study reveals what's behind a tarantula's blue hue
01.12.2015 | University of California - San Diego

nachricht Tracing a path toward neuronal cell death
01.12.2015 | Brigham and Women's Hospital

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: How do Landslides control the weathering of rocks?

Chemical weathering in mountains depends on the process of erosion.

Chemical weathering of rocks over geological time scales is an important control on the stability of the climate. This weathering is, in turn, highly dependent...

Im Focus: How Cells in the Developing Ear ‘Practice’ Hearing

Before the fluid of the middle ear drains and sound waves penetrate for the first time, the inner ear cells of newborn rodents practice for their big debut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have figured out the molecular chain of events that enables the cells to make “sounds” on their own, essentially “practicing” their ability to process sounds in the world around them.

The researchers, who describe their experiments in the Dec. 3 edition of the journal Cell, show how hair cells in the inner ear can be activated in the absence...

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

European Geosciences Union meeting: Media registration now open (EGU 2016 media advisory 1)

01.12.2015 | Event News

Urbanisation and migration from rural areas challenging agriculture in Eastern Europe

30.11.2015 | Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Latest News

USGS projects large loss of Alaska permafrost by 2100

01.12.2015 | Earth Sciences

New study reveals what's behind a tarantula's blue hue

01.12.2015 | Life Sciences

Climate Can Grind Mountains Faster Than They Can Be Rebuilt

01.12.2015 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>