Harvard's Tiny "Pocket" Laboratory Could Speed Discovery of New Biofuels, Medications (Video)

harvard pocket lab image

Image via Eurekalert, Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Agresti, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Just a bit smaller than an iPod Nano, a new pocket-sized laboratory could revolutionize the way biofuels are discovered. The device - a "microfluidic sorting device" - can sort enzymes and compounds about 1,000 times faster than the larger equipment in use today, and thus can sniff out potential for new microbe-based biofuels much faster, cheaper and more energy efficiently, than ever before. CleanTechnica writes that while conventional sorting equipment requires energy and reagents, Harvard's new device uses 10 million-fold less reagent and far less energy. If that doesn't seem like a very big deal, it is - R&D; magazine reports that the device analyzes reactions a 1,000-times faster and uses 10 million-fold less volumes of reagent than conventional state-of-the-art robotic methods, reducing screening costs by 1 million-fold.

"Our finding is not so much a scientific discovery, but the first demonstration of a new technology," says project leader Jeremy Agresti, a former research associate in the lab of co-author David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Department of Physics. "What limits new areas of research in biology and biotechnology is the ability to assay or to do experiments on many different variables in parallel at once."

The mini lab works by passing drops of microscopic fluid treated with a surfacant through nanotubes that fork in two directions. When a drop reaches a fork, a laser measures the level of fluorescence inside an individual cell contained within the drop. According to Amy Rowat, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS, each microscopic drop becomes like a miniature test tube for that individual cell. The laser measures the cell - the more fluorescence, the more desirable that cell, and it is directed to the "keep" branch of the fork while other cells are directed to the "discard" branch.

The process means incredibly fast identification of organisms ideal for creating biofuels, and then improving their efficiency, in a fraction of the time it currently takes. Not only that, researchers state it could also mean a faster way to develop solutions for restoring polluted areas with pollution-eating microbes, converting wastewater to bioplastics, or even developing new drugs.

Here's a video of the sorting device in action

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