MIT lights up tractor beam to manipulate cells

Call it Star Trek tech for microscopes.  MIT researchers said today they have found a way to use a “tractor beam” of light to pick up, hold, and move around individual cells and other objects on the surface of a microchip.The technology is known as optical tweezers and MIT researchers have found a way to combine this powerful tool for moving, controlling and measuring objects for use in building and manipulating items on a chip. Optical tweezers technology has been around for awhile but the ability to use it in combination with the microchip is what makes this unique, researchers said. Optical tweezers use the tiny force of a beam of light from a laser to push around and control tiny objects, from cells to plastic beads.  They typically work on a glass surface mounted inside a microscope so that the effects can be observed, researchers said in a statement.  But silicon chips are opaque to light, so applying this technique to them not an obvious move, the researchers say, since the optical tweezers use light beams that have to travel through the material to reach the working surface. The key to making it work in a chip is that silicon is transparent to infrared wavelengths of light - which can be easily produced by lasers, and used instead of the visible light beams.An example of how this technology may be used: many people are studying how neurons communicate by depositing them on microchips where electrical circuits etched into the chips monitor their electrical behavior, said Matthew J. Lang an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.  “They randomly put cells down on a surface, and hope one lands on [or near] a [sensor] so its activity can be measured. With [our technology], you can put the cell right down next to the sensors.”  Not only can motions be precisely controlled with the device, but it can also provide very precise measurements of a cell's position, he said. As a demonstration of the system's versatility, researchers set it up to collect and hold 16 tiny living E. coli cells at once on a microchip, forming them into the letters MIT. A paper discussing the technology will appear in a future issue of Lab on a Chip.Creating Star Trek-like devices is all the rage it seems.  Earlier this year researchers at  Engineers at the University of Washington said they were experimenting with a device right out of Star Trek: a Tricorder-like tool that uses high-intensity focused ultrasound rays. On Star Trek Tricorders had multiple functions but the medical version used by Bones McCoy could scan a body and help diagnose and heal injured or sick patients.Earlier this year Purdue University researchers said they created a handheld sensing system its creators said could be used for testing foods for dangerous bacterial contaminants including salmonella.  Purdue also rolled out a cloaking device this year.  Then we also have a phaser gun courtesy of Ionatron,  which makes what it calls  "directed energy weapons. " According to the company's Website, its devices produce " man-made lightning" to disable people or vehicles that threaten our security." Cisco’s telepresence technology has been likened to Start Trek’s live image anywhere visuals.

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