A membrane in a cell is simultaneously a liquid (the constituent lipids and proteins diffuse laterally) a material (the membrane is a continuous surface) and a barrier with layers of chemical affinity (presenting three nanometers of oily material that most molecules cannot cross). These three characteristics give rich physics: Lipids and proteins are not evenly distributed, leading to a propensity to form curved structures that relax the chemical stress and influence the function of the proteins that are embedded therein. The physics are important because they directly influence processes related to disease, such as dysfunctional signaling at the membrane in cancer, and the ability of viruses to penetrate into and bud from the cell.
The focus of the Sodt Lab is to use molecular simulations to compute how membrane composition and the modular chemistry of lipids determine the material and physical properties of membranes, including the propensity to promote lateral organization and to affect the function of transmembrane signaling protein systems.
The work requires physics-based all-atom simulation with new statistical mechanical methods to interpret them, mathematical analysis of curved surfaces and continuum-elastic materials, and creative model building to apply the results to biological processes and so determine the role of lipids in disease.