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Biochemical Signaling Chip Design Techniques Devised

William Bentley

William Bentley (University of Maryland)

30 July 2014. Engineers at University of Maryland in College Park developed techniques for designing a chip device that controls biological functions of cells with electronic and biochemical signals. The team led by bioengineering professor William Bentley published its findings earlier this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (paid subscription required).

Bentley and colleagues are seeking ways to provide greater electronic controls on microfluidic chip devices that emulate physiological functions, even entire human organs. These devices are being developed to simplify and miniaturize medical lab tests, as well as test drugs for potential toxicity with more reliability than lab animals.

In their research, the team conducted a series of experiments to design and test a biological process with enzymes programmed on a gold microchip. The process programmed on the chip controls the amount of enzymes assembled and their activity, with cell signals from the chip tested on bacteria.

The process involves a protein assembled from multiple genes called (His)6-LuxS-Pfs-(Tyr)5 or HLPT, with which Bentley’s lab worked previously. The researchers send several levels of electric charge through chips with the HLPT protein, where the charge affects the amount of enzyme activity taking place. The resulting biochemical output of the chips is then measured through a signaling molecule called autoinducer-2, known to cue bacterial behavior, and tracked with reporter cells that fluoresce in a blue color.

One effect of autoinducer-2 signals is to stimulate quorum sensing where bacteria and other species coordinate their activities, often as a result of population density. The researchers found the bacteria, when sent the autoinducer-2 signals, exhibit more coordinated activity rather than acting as individual cell organisms. In addition, the team found the amount of electrical charge sent to the chip correlates directly with the amount biochemical signal it generates, and the level of bacterial cell activity.

This proof-of-concept study, say the authors, indicates it is possible to control bacterial communication with electrical signals, which opens up their use with microfluidic labs-on-chips measuring enzymes, cells, and other biological components emulating human functions. The university’s Biochip Collaborative, in which Bentley is a member, aims to design this kind of hybrid bio-electronic components embedded in microelectronic systems to interact with microfluidic devices.

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