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Sugar Helps Some Living Organisms Survive Freezing

NSF Award:

CAREER: Room Temperature Stabilization of Cellular Factories by Confinement: A Thermodynamic Approach  (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities)

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In an NSF-supported study, scientists discovered how the motions of sugar and water molecules help stressed cells transition into a state of suspended animation instead of freezing or dying.

Preservation of biological systems, from mammalian sperm and egg cells to bacteria, is a viable and economical storage and processing alternative to traditional techniques that require cryogenic temperatures. This method may significantly cut costs and decrease the pollution associated with cryogenic requirements.

The research, conducted by Alptekin Aksan's team at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, brings the community one step closer to designing room-temperature preservation and storage techniques.

Scientists are interested in sugar solutions because certain organisms create and accumulate sugars when exposed to a decrease in environmental temperature, salinity or humidity. They believe this response helps cells survive in harsh conditions by supporting the transition into a state of suspended animation, allowing cells to revive when conditions are fair. 

The sugars that accumulated in the cells of the organism caused the intracellular materials to vitrify (turn into a high-viscosity fluid) instead of freeze. The researchers believe this eliminates crystallization and stops other damaging biochemical reactions, thereby preserving the organism.

Using super-cooled sugar solutions, Aksan's group identified water clusters that play a role in cells reaching suspended animation. Through chemical analysis they learned how the clusters distribute themselves and how the particles interact with nanopores.

Images (1 of )

  • image of honey on a spoon
  • Transmitted light of encapsulated fibroblasts (in silica gels)
  • Fluorescence images of encapsulated fibroblasts (in silica gels)
In an NSF-supported study, scientists discovered how the motions of sugar and water molecules help stressed cells transition into a state of suspended animation instead of freezing or dying.
m_bartosch
Transmitted light of encapsulated fibroblasts (in silica gels) used in the experiments to detect the structural changes of endoplasmic proteins.
Alptekin Aksan, University of Minnesota
Fluorescence images of encapsulated fibroblasts (in silica gels) used in the experiments to detect the structural changes of endoplasmic proteins.
Alptekin Aksan, University of Minnesota

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