The universe has always been at the same level of sophistication as it’s been from the time we came to the scene, but sometimes I like to imagine the intricacy and “usability” of the universe evolving alongside our own understanding of it. From our ancestral cavemen marveling at the sight of fire and wondering what heavenly spirit this was, to the 21st-centuryst century man that doesn’t think twice before using that same once-heavenly fire to skillfully erect a massive skyscraper that literally scrapes against the sky.
For our ancestors, the universe was much simpler. Fire, water, earth, and air were the four primary elements that governed our entire existence. That is until more fundamental pieces of the puzzle were discovered. Electricity, magnetism, optics of a glass piece, and the world of the microbes significantly widened the horizon for what the universe was made of to us. Matter permeated every nook and cranny of our existence and it only took up the forms of a solid, a liquid, and a gas. We evolved to believe the atom was the simplest and smallest particle in the universe and that Newton had cracked god’s code on how the cosmos went about its day.
Then with time even more knowledge was revealed to us as well laid our eyes on our own building blocks and saw our cells and DNA in real-time. The once indivisible atom also split into dozens of even smaller subatomic particles and their interactions put forward even more questions to answer. Fast forward to today, we know the universe to be vastly different what our ancestors did. And yet, we probably have barely scratched the surface. Today’s awe-inspiring realities are what we will be discussing in this chapter as I attempt to explain to you how you are not as gooey and organic-ey as we have thought for so long. You, sir, are a crystal.
That’s right. You read it. You are a crystal.
There’s more. You are a liquid crystal.
THE LIVING MATRIX
Aside from having a possible existential crisis from the last few sentences, hear me out. We’ve grown up with quite a rigid definition of what a crystal is. And that’s why imagining a soft fleshy organism such as yourself to be composed of crystals may seem like such a nonsensical thing to even consider. But hear me out.
What is a crystal? Secondary school physics and chemistry would tell you that a crystal is a rigid solid object with its component atoms arranged and bonded in an organized and repeating manner, called a lattice. The lattice structure is nigh inflexible and upon application of enough force, would go straight for fractures instead of bending i.e. very limited flexibility of the structure. Some well-known crystalline structures we come across in our everyday lives include the quartz crystal powering our wristwatches, the crystals of precious stones that punctuate our ornate jewelry, and even the ice we use to cool our drinks is basically just crystalline water.
So, what do I mean when I say that we humans are also made of liquid crystals? The basic premise of a crystal still holds true for the most part. The only difference between us and the basic crystalline lattice structures we talked about above is flexibility.
Liquid crystals or hydrated crystals are nothing more than the complex polymeric structures of our tissues. Think muscle, cartilage, collagen, bone, even cell membranes. Organically, all the listed structures are made from complex combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, with little bits of nitrogen and phosphorus here and there. Many of them bond with entire molecules of water in a symbiotic sense, hence the term hydrated crystals. But if you look at it from a physical sense, almost all of the physical and chemical requirements of a crystalline structure are still being met. Think about it. Our biological “crystals” still have a regular repeated structure of microscopic ‘solid’ atoms and molecules. The only difference is that organic crystals have a lot more flexibility to them than inorganic ones, allowing us the movements that we make use of every day.
This is coupled with our widening knowledge base of what we are made of as more powerful microscopes have revealed our cells to be so much more complicated than we originally thought. Merely a couple decades ago the human cell was just a bag of fluid (nucleus) inside a larger bag of fluid (cytoplasm), with a few scattered organelles like mitochondria. Now, it’s unbelievably more complex. We have entire highways that guide cell products in and out of the cell, aptly called cytoskeletons. Furthermore, we have protein factories called ribosomes, wandering pieces of RNA, enzymes sealed in tiny vaults called vacuoles, an entire protein assembly line called the Golgi apparatus, and cell membranes made of a double layered shell that insulates the inside of the cell from the outside owing to it being hydrophilic on its ends and lipophilic at its center.
And this is just once regular cell. We have 37 trillion of these marvelously complex works of art collectively forming our entire person. It’s amazing to just think about this living matrix of highly complex and intricate structures all interacting with each other in very specific ways and at the heart of all of it is the repeatability and structured arrangement, or ‘crystallness’ if you will, of our atoms.
Our living matrix runs one of the most complex operating systems in the universe and with each passing year we learn more and more about what is happening inside us. Did you know that our crystallness is deliberate and we constantly use that fact to heal and repair our systems by using electron flow? Bet you didn’t, did you?
DOWN TO EARTH, LITERALLY.
One of the benefits of crystalline structures is the way they interact with passing electrons. Some crystals make excellent conductors of electrons, such as the loosely crystalline graphene made of strong horizontal layers of carbon atoms but a relatively loose vertical layering which allows it not just to conduct electrons but also act as a sliding lubricant. Some crystals don’t conduct electrons, such as diamond, made of the same carbon atoms that graphene was made of, only in a much more rigid and immovable arrangement.
So, it stands to reason that the more rigid the lattice of crystal, the less it facilitates electron transport. And because biological crystals that make up our bodies are partly flexible due to their structures, they make excellent candidates as semiconductors. More on that in a bit.
But why is electron transport so important you ask? Good question. Dr. James L. Oschman and colleagues contemplated the importance of our bodies being electron conductors with the Earth surface and found that this ability to allow electron flow was linked to real biologic concerns such as inflammation, immune responses and wound repair. They found that this “Earthing” effect of exchanging electrons with the Earth was achieved by our liquid crystal components. These microcurrents to and from the external environment via a biological ‘circuit’ with the Earth allowed the body to mitigate the hazardous effects of free radicals generated daily in various chemical processes.
Earthing has an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effect on our cells, and this could only be achieved with the repeated structure of a lattice yet the flexibility of organic carbon-based polymers. Our living matrix of liquid crystals helps to heal our own body using microcurrents from the outside.
LIQUID CRYSTALS ELASTOMERS
Liquid Crystal Elastomers or LCEs are unique combinations of liquid crystals in our body with a special type of elastic entropy enabled polymeric compounds called elastomers. Long story short, LCEs exhibit properties that are found in both liquid crystals such as electron facilitation and electric responsiveness as well as those of elastomers such as tensile strength. LCEs also display unique attributed of their own that depend on their constituents.
Why are LCEs important enough to be included in this chapter?
Liquid Crystal Elastomers have been gaining popularity among scientists for a couple years now because they combine the organic biocompatibility of their constituent elastomers with the electronic circuit mimicry offered by the liquid crystals to create the possibility of bioelectronic devices such as transdermal tissue circuits and bio-transducers. Think of them as the doorway through which a whole world of bio-electronic device possibilities await you and you can finally achieve your dream of becoming one with the machines and identifying as a cyborg.
Don’t take my word for it yet though as their applications in real world scenarios are still under study and it may literally take 2077 to get to a cyberpunk styled society full of bio-electronic body modification. Fingers crossed though.
CANCER DIAGNOSTICS AND TREATMENT
While the use of biologic liquid crystals to make bioelectronics may be more of a near-distant future thing, what may be a reality within our lifetimes is their use in furthering research and development of better diagnostics for cancers.
In a review by J. Vallamkondu and colleagues in 2018, the possible biologic applications of liquid crystals were discussed in depth with various stages of cancer diagnosis and treatment believed to be compatible with the introduction of liquid crystals. One example from the review is the use of a liquid crystal called 5CB (4-Cyano-4′-pentylbiphenyl) and its anisotropic birefringent properties to sense biomolecular marker CA-125 for cancers, determine speeds of enzymatic reactions, sensing accurate glucose levels and even DNA hybridization.
Another study used 5CB as a detector for Keratin Forming Cell Tumor Cell Line Type B (KB) Cancer Cells in vitro using a mixture of folic acid copolymers, phosphate buffered saline and sodium dio-decyl sulfate (SDS). The detection was so sensitive and specific for KB cells that it positively detected the folate ligand interactions with the LC mixture even in viruses and bacteria.
The optical properties of liquid crystals, particularly birefringence and scatter of polarized backlight, has also been studied as a viable non-invasive detector of skin cancer as the denaturalization of collagen fibers in the development of skin cancers messes with the birefringence of various liquid crystals, allowing a quick and clever way to detect skin malignancies better than the old ABCDE approach (Asymmetry, Border shape, Color, Depth/Diameter and Evolution).
LIQUID CRYSTALS AS DRUG CARRIERS
Similar to Liquid Crystal Elastomers and their potential to make biologic circuitry, liquid crystals in themselves are also being actively studied as drug carriers across the skin owing to their bio-compatibility with human tissues. This concept of transdermal drug delivery systems (TDDS) is not new as scientists have been looking for viable drug carriers that get the job done timely without having much harmful interactions with the tissues they target.
It’s a tricky and slippery slope to manage between a carrier that safely delivers and then releases the drug across the skin, but also doesn’t have any adverse reaction with said skin. Liquid crystals as it turns out, may just be what they have been looking for.
Triptolide is one such compound which has shown promise in mouse trials for its action against arthritis, pancreatic cancer and polycystic kidney disease. But its toxicity limits its use in humans as it can quickly get to problematic concentrations in the blood and cause a whole host of worrying side effects. Liquid crystal TDDS may be the one solution where triptolide can be safely used against the abovementioned conditions without its levels in the blood getting dangerously high as well.
One study used triptolide loaded liquid crystals in a rat model of arthritis and observed that not only the dermal penetration of this delivery system was excellent, the triptolide concentrations in the skin remained in the therapeutic range without raising the blood levels of triptolide significantly. This produced a number of benefits such as better anti-arthritic activity due to good dermal penetration, better bioavailability of triptolide as well as lower side effects because of its lower seepage into blood. More TDDS systems may use liquid crystals as their primary delivery systems in the future.
Liquid crystals in our body, despite being a relatively newer concept, have quickly shown promise as not only helping the body battle harmful free radicals by neutralizing their charge via Earthing, but also offer potentially viable scientific applications as drug carriers, cancer detectors and may open up an entirely new domain for seamless merging of organic tissue and electronic circuitry. Liquid crystals may bring us the pop culture futuristic world to use sooner than you think.
Hirst, L. S., & Charras, G. (2017). Biological physics: Liquid crystals in living tissue. Nature, 544(7649), 164–165. https://doi.org/10.1038/544164a
Kolay, J., Bera, S., & Mukhopadhyay, R. (2021). How stable are the collagen and ferritin proteins for application in bioelectronics?. PloS one, 16(1), e0246180. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246180
Kolay, J., Bera, S., & Mukhopadhyay, R. (2019). Electron Transport in Muscle Protein Collagen. Langmuir : the ACS journal of surfaces and colloids, 35(36), 11950–11957. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.langmuir.9b01685
Oschman, J. L., Chevalier, G., & Brown, R. (2015). The effects of grounding (earthing) on inflammation, the immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Journal of inflammation research, 8, 83–96. https://doi.org/10.2147/JIR.S69656
Hussain, M., Jull, E., Mandle, R. J., Raistrick, T., Hine, P. J., & Gleeson, H. F. (2021). Liquid Crystal Elastomers for Biological Applications. Nanomaterials (Basel, Switzerland), 11(3), 813. https://doi.org/10.3390/nano11030813
Vallamkondu, J., Corgiat, E. B., Buchaiah, G., Kandimalla, R., & Reddy, P. H. (2018). Liquid Crystals: A Novel Approach for Cancer Detection and Treatment. Cancers, 10(11), 462. https://doi.org/10.3390/cancers10110462
Shan, Q. Q., Jiang, X. J., Wang, F. Y., Shu, Z. X., & Gui, S. Y. (2019). Cubic and hexagonal liquid crystals as drug carriers for the transdermal delivery of triptolide. Drug delivery, 26(1), 490–498. https://doi.org/10.1080/10717544.2019.1602796