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Using Microtubules To Illustrate Polymer Properties

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Micro-/Nano-Technology Education

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1348.1 - 13.1348.11



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Paper Authors


Yoli Jeune University of Florida

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Yoli Jeune is currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering of the University of Florida. She has received a Bachelors degree in Clinical Laboratory Sciences (1999) and a Masters degree in Secondary Science Education with a concentration in Biology (2002) from the University of South Florida. She worked for 3.5 years at the Hillsborough County School District in Florida teaching Biology and Chemistry to High School students. She is a recipient of the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan, and Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate fellowships.

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Henry Hess University of Florida

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Henry Hess is currently an assistant professor at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering of the University of Florida. He received a diploma in physics from the Technical University Berlin in 1996, and obtained his Dr rer. nat. (summa cum laude) in experimental physics from the Free University of Berlin in 1999 under the guidance of Ludger Woeste. His postdoctoral studies were conducted from 2000 to 2002 at the Department of Bioengineering, University of Washington, where he also served as a research assistant professor (2002–2005). He received the Wolfgang Paul Award of the German Society for Mass Spectrometry (2000) and, together with his postdoctoral mentor Viola Vogel, the Philip Morris Forschungspreis (2005).

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Using microtubules to illustrate polymer properties


Microtubules are a biopolymer, which assembles in vitro within minutes via noncovalent interactions from thousands of tubulin proteins at a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. The large size (25 nm in diameter and several micrometers in length) and stiffness of these tubular, hollow polymers enables the imaging of individual, fluorescently labeled microtubules by fluorescence microscopy. We have utilized microtubules to create a stimulating laboratory, for undergraduate students which illustrates basic polymer concepts using commercially available compounds.

By imaging and analyzing a population of microtubules, students can directly determine molecular weight distributions and the degree of polymerization. Polymerization parameters, such as initial monomer concentration, temperature, and polymerization time, as well as post- polymerization processing conditions (such as shearing) can be varied, and their effect on the microtubule population can be directly observed.

Based on the assessment of the first group of students conducting this laboratory, we propose that a microtubule-based laboratory is a valuable addition to the curriculum of MSE and BME students specializing in polymers and biomaterials, since it enables striking demonstrations of polymer science and bioengineering principles.


At our institution, a 3-credit, semester long, senior level course “Physical Properties of Polymers” is accompanied by a laboratory section. In this section, an introductory polymerization laboratory where the students polymerized Nylon 6,6 and Poly- methylmethacrylate (PMMA) is followed by five laboratories focusing on rheology, surface energy, viscosity, gel permeation chromatography (GPC), and mechanical properties.

Based on our extensive experience 1-3 in working in vitro with microtubules (biopolymer structures which self-assemble from the protein tubulin) we perceived an opportunity to design a novel laboratory focused on the illustration of basic polymer properties using microtubules as examples. We primarily aimed to enhance the students’ intuitive grasp of concepts such as molecular weight distribution, Brownian motion, and post-polymerization processing. Due to the increasing interest of engineers in biological systems, this laboratory would also complement the traditional study of synthetic polymers with the investigation of a biopolymer having central functions in eukaryotic cells.

Microtubules are a unique polymer for our purposes due to their large size 4, 5. With a length of several micrometers and a diameter of 25 nm these tubular structures are thousand-fold larger compared to synthetic linear polymer chain such as polyethylene. Conjugation of fluorescent molecules to the tubulin subunits at a ratio of approximately one-to-one results in bright structures which can be readily imaged with a modern fluorescence microscope. Since the spatial resolution of the optical microscope is on the order of 200 nm, the length of individual

Jeune, Y., & Hess, H. (2008, June), Using Microtubules To Illustrate Polymer Properties Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4147

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