Lab-on-a-chip the latest weapon against pollution

Feb. 23, 2009
Israeli scientists have developed a tiny laboratory, complete with a microscopic workbench, to measure water quality in real time. This lab-on-a-chip can detect pollutants and pathogens, and the Pentagon hopes it may detect the intrusion of a biological weapon into a U.S. water supply. Funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Projects Agency, this new lab-on-a-chip could become a defensive weapon that protects America from biological warfare...

WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 18, 2009 -- Israeli scientists have developed a tiny laboratory, complete with a microscopic workbench, to measure water quality in real time. This lab-on-a-chip can detect pollutants and pathogens, and the Pentagon hopes it may detect the intrusion of a biological weapon into a U.S. water supply.

Funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Projects Agency, this new lab-on-a-chip could become a defensive weapon that protects America from biological warfare.

Team leader Professor Yosi Shacham-Diamand, vice-dean of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Engineering, says the tiny lab pairs biology with the capabilities of nanotechnology.

"We've developed a platform -- essentially a micro-sized, quarter-inch square lab -- employing genetically engineered bacteria that light up when presented with a stressor in water," says Shacham-Diamand. Equipment on the chip can detect the very low light levels produced by the bacteria.

"Basically, ours is an innovative advance in the lab-on-a-chip system," says Shacham-Diamand. "It's an ingenious nano-scale platform designed to get information out of biological events. Our solution can monitor water with never-before-achieved levels of accuracy. But as a platform, it can also be used for unlimited purposes, such as investigating stem cell therapies or treating cancer."

Array of electrochemical cells on a silicon chip in the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University (Photo courtesy Tel Aviv University)

Shacham-Diamand recently addressed 400 physicians at a World Cancer Conference who are seeking new devices to measure and monitor cancer and pharmaceuticals. "They need sensors like Tel Aviv University's lab-on-a-chip. It's a hot topic now," he said.

Partnering with other Israeli scientists, Tel Aviv University is building and commercializing its water-testing mini-labs to measure and monitor how genetically engineered bacteria respond to pollution such as E. coli in water. Cities across Israel have expressed interest in the technology, as has the state of Hawaii, with its mainstay tourist industry dependent on clean beach water.

Shacham-Diamand says his lab-on-a-chip will make the use of animal testing for toxins obsolete. "Our system is based on a plastic chip that is more humane, much faster, more sensitive and much cheaper," he said.

The first lab-on-a-chip analysis system was a gas chromatograph, developed in 1975 by S.C. Terry of Stanford University, and just in the past year or two, research and commercialization in this field has exploded, with labs on chips being used to detect pollutants in soils, air, and food as well as water.

In Spain, IK4 Research Technology Alliance members, the Basque technology centers Gaiker and Ikerlan, have patented a cost-effective micro device that can diagnose bacterial infections, including salmonella species, in less than an hour.

After the application of two syringes, this lab-on-a-chip carries out functions such as sample concentration, membrane rupture and DNA amplification, and then identifies the bacteria.

In the United States, scientists studying human health, agriculture and the environment have a new lab-on-a-chip to help them with bioremediation of sediments and soils.

Nicknamed GeoChip, this tiny lab consolidates into one analysis something that using traditional methods would require dozens of tests and could take years to complete, according to co-developer Chris Schadt of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Biosciences Division.

The GeoChip features more than 24,000 gene probes that target 150 functional gene groups involved in biochemical, ecological and environmental processes. It helps determine the role of microbes in soil and how microbial processes are connected to ecosystem responses such as temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide.

NASA scientists have developed a new lab-on-a-chip that is tough enough to be used in outer space.

Peter Willis at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and colleague University of California Berkeley chemist Richard Mathies have created a lab-on-a-chip that they claim can survive the extremes of the European ExoMars rover mission scheduled for launch in 2013. They say the device could detect molecules essential for life, such as amino acids.

The valves and pumps on this lab-on-a-chip are moved up and down using a pressure or vacuum source. (Photo by Richard Mathies courtesy UC Berkeley)

"Up until now, chemistry has been done on microliter or milliliter scales," Mathies says. "But there's actually more than enough molecules in a few nanoliters, or billionths of a liter, to do most of today's chemical assays."

On Mars, the chip will run a program that seeks out a specific characteristic of amino acids that Mathies says would be "strong proof of extraterrestrial life."

In 2007, NASA successfully tested a lab-on-a-chip for the first time onboard the International Space Station. The mini-lab detects the presence of bacteria or fungi on the surfaces of a spacecraft far more rapidly than standard methods of culturing.

It is designed so that "astronauts can do the analysis onboard with no need to return samples to laboratories on Earth," said principle investigator Norman Wainwright of the Charles River Laboratories in Charleston, South Carolina. "The ability to monitor microorganisms would be especially important on long space voyages, not only to check the health of astronauts but also to monitor electronics and structural materials, which can be corroded or otherwise damaged by certain fungi and bacteria."

Labs on chips have their own peer-reviewed journal. The Royal Society of Chemistry in London launched the journal "Lab on a Chip" in 2001 to document these microfluidic and nanotechnologies across a variety of disciplines -- chemistry, biology, bioengineering, physics, electronics, clinical science, chemical engineering and materials science.

And, naturally, labs on chips have their own website - www.lab-on-a-chip.com.

"These lab-on-a-chip technologies motivated by such things as Mars exploration and forensic identification have larger applications in all areas of chemical and biochemical analysis, from genetic sequencing to pathogen detection," Mathies says. "This technology will lead to a real paradigm shift in chemistry."

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