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Surviving extreme dehydration

For most organisms, dehydration can lead to death. Loss of water can induce very high pressures that even the strongest materials may not be able to withstand, resulting in irreversible structural damage. Bacterial spores are a remarkable exception. They can survive prolonged periods of dehydration while showing no detectable damage. Researchers at the Wyss Institute are now providing insights on this extraordinary survival mechanism. Their findings appear in this weekÍs online issue of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The Bacillus spore is able to survive prolonged dehydration conditions by mechanically adapting its coat to withstand physical stress.

The research team, which included Wyss Core faculty member L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., and Wyss Collaborator and former Resident Scholar Ozgur Sahin, Ph.D., has created a model to show that the Bacillus sporeÍs resiliency is due to its ability to dynamically adapt to environmental variations in humidity. As the spore dynamically expands and contracts in response to different hydration conditions, its coat carefully harnesses these mechanical instabilities by folding and unfolding into wrinkled patterns. These wrinkles allow the spore to accommodate changes in volume without compromising its structural and bio-chemical integrity. The research work can form the basis for developing new, flexible materials that dynamically adapt to changes in their environment while providing the strength to withstand extensive physical stresses.

Mahadevan is also Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University, and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Physics at Harvard University. Sahin is also Associate Professor in Biological Sciences at Columbia University. In addition to Mahadevan and Sahin, the research team included Ee Hou Yong, graduate student at SEAS and Adam Driks, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Loyola University Medical Center.

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