Harnessing Molecular Motors: Nanotechnology and Biology Meet to Redefine 'Lab on a Chip'

photo Hey Paul @ Flickr

If the electric Mini can have motors in its wheels why can't science geeks get molecular motors in their labs? After graduating college I spent a good three years of my life moving small volumes of fluid from one tube to another, then injecting those small volumes of fluid into a 'lab on a chip'. This lab on a chip still needed a lab, as it had to go on a large machine that then pumps buffer through the chip to wash it before it could relay any useful data. All of this effort was to get a better understanding of RNA, but similar set ups are used for detecting biological weapons, food spoilage, and environmental contamination. The future, as they say, is on the 'lab on chip'.

So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that researches at the University of Florida (UF) have taken the first steps in getting rid of all of that fluid transfer, and letting life lift the heavy load itself. Molecular Motors
Henry Hess, a UF assistant professor of materials science and engineering is harnessing the machinery of biology to create a better 'lab on a chip'. Life is built on the nanoscale, and life uses molecular motors to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Hess and his team have found a way to harness those same molecular motors to do work in the lab — well in a 'lab on a chip'.

"Instead of just changing one part of an existing system, we have a new and different way of doing things and we can do it this way because of building blocks from bionanotechnology, and that's what makes it very exciting." Hess said.

Improving on 'Lab on a Chip'
Instead of pumping water through a chip to perform different chemical steps, the UF team lets the molecular motors simply walk their nano-experiment through a path of different environments. It is a bit like a car moving through an automated carwash. As you move down the line you get a rinse, then a soapy wash, and if you have the cash maybe some of that super wax. Except in this case it all happens in a space the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

The process doesn't use any electricity, or need any pumps or large machines. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of life itself, powers the molecular motors on their journey. This technology has the potential to allow true portability to laboratory testing.

"You have replaced all this washing with this active transport by molecular shuttles, so you don't need a pump or battery," Hess said.

The molecular motors are not as fast as current biological science assays, since it takes them hours to progress through the chip before a microscope can read the results.

"Right now, this is light years away from competing with any assay," Hess said. "But, it is a completely different way of doing it."

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Tags: Energy Efficiency | Nanotechnology

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