Cramming biology on silicon is not a new effort, and it’s one that has helped advance the science of genomics and led to the $1,000 genome. But in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed some pretty sweet combinations of biology and chip research. They will first end up helping biological research and test new drug compounds, but in the future might become something out of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity, the melding of man and machine.
A gut chip for a gut check: You and I might not want a chip that mimics the entire process of a human digestive system including peristalsis and living bacteria, but folks trying to test out drugs do. And now, thanks to researchers at Harvard University they have one. The lab-on-chip uses two thin channels coated in a biological growth medium and human intestinal cells to create a mini-intestine that apparently can sustain actual gut bacteria for about a week. Who needs an ant farm anymore?
A silver voyeur to monitor cells’ secretions: Researchers at Lehigh University have developed a biosensor that is so sensitive it can monitor the protein secretions of cells. It’s composed of a thin silver skin on a glass slide that contains two slits. Lights shined onto one slit sets off a reaction and interference pattern that is captured and read by a special microscope. Each pattern represents a different type of protein, letting scientists understand what’s happening (and growing) inside their petri dishes in real time.
Nanoparticles that build themselves: Instead of putting a biological process on a chip or creating a chip to measure biological processes researchers at the University of Michigan have created materials that mimic proteins. These man-made materials act like biological processes and can self-organize in predictable ways, giving researchers new ways to create biomedical devices, solar panels or even new drugs. The team is working to create nanoparticles that will self-assemble into enzyme-like particles that can be used to catalyze biological and chemical reactions.