Heads and Tails: Molecular Imagination and the Lipid Bilayer, 1917–1941

In Karl Matlin, Jane Maienschein & Manfred Laubichler (eds.), Visions of Cell Biology: Reflections Inspired by Cowdry's General Cytology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 209-245 (2018)
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Abstract

Today, the lipid bilayer structure is nearly ubiquitous, taken for granted in even the most rudimentary introductions to cell biology. Yet the image of the lipid bilayer, built out of lipids with heads and tails, went from having obscure origins deep in colloid chemical theory in 1924 to being “obvious to any competent physical chemist” by 1935. This chapter examines how this schematic, strictly heuristic explanation of the idea of molecular orientation was developed within colloid physical chemistry, and how the image was transformed into a reflection of the reality and agency of lipid molecules in the biological microworld. Whereas in physical and colloid chemistry these images considered secondary to instrumental measurement and mathematical modeling of surface phenomena, in biology the manipulable image of the lipid on paper became an essential tool for the molecularization of the cell.

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Daniel Liu
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

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