This Week at the Institute: The Mechanics of Life and a Quantum Amplifier

This week's Weizmann news stories: A "steam release valve" for inflammation, a "brake" for cell division and an "amplifier" for quantum signals.

The steam release valve mechanism also involves an amplifier - one that ramps up the inflammation signal in response to viral attack on a cell. When the signal reaches its peak, it trips a nearby protein called caspase-8, which then kills the amps, damping the signal back down. The scientists think that failures in this mechanism could be behind various inflammatory diseases.

The brake on cell division turns out to be our old friend p53. Thirty years and thousands of papers on, scientists are still turning up new functions for this master gene that keeps our cells from becoming cancerous. Three teams worked together on this research; they started out with a broad sweep, identifying around 8,000 different genes that are expressed after a growth factor first knocks on the cell's door. When they looked for the braking mechanism - the countersignal to stop, wait, check and check again before proceeding with cell division - a group of genes under the control of p53 popped up. In other words, cells with mutated or missing p53 - including over half of all cancer cells - are operating their cell division machinery with faulty brakes.

The amplifier is a quantum mechanical version of the "locked-in amplifier" commonly used in physics labs around the globe to measure signals in a noisy environment. In this case, their detector consists of a single ion, and the sensitivity of its measurement of magnetic vibrations is sufficient to measure the magnetic field that is produced by a single electron. That's two orders of magnitude more sensitive than previous such measurements. The researchers say that the technique can be applied to all sorts of quantum sensors to improve their performance.

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Ion trap in the lab of Dr. Roee Ozeri

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