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Penn researchers have found a link between sugar and the way cells communicate, using a groundbreaking method for studying the intricate details of human cells.

A research team of scientists, which included Penn's Biology and Chemistry departments, found that sugar molecules in cells serve as channels for cells and proteins to communicate with one another, Penn Today reported. Cell biology experts were previously attempting to understand what processes controlled intercellular communication. The study was published on Feb. 28 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The team was the first to use a technique known as atomic force spectroscopy, which allows researchers to scan cells with a detailed accuracy up to less than a nanometer — almost 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. Researchers previously used diffraction to study cells, which broke up the cell and prevented it from being studied as a whole, Penn Today reported.

“People try to understand how human cells function, but it is very difficult to do,” Penn Chemistry professor Virgil Percec told Penn Today. “Everything in the cell is liquid-like, and that makes it difficult to analyze by routine methods.”

Percec’s research group studies the construction of synthetic biological systems. The group is currently attempting to study cell-to-cell communication and create cells that combine human and bacteria components.

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