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EU Grant Funds Research on Programmable Chemical Systems

John McCaskill (Ruhr University Bochum)

John McCaskill (Ruhr University Bochum)

The European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme is funding a project to build autonomous self-assembling electronic microreagents that can exchange chemical and electronic information. Biochemistry professor John McCaskill at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany (pictured left) with colleagues at Bochum and teams from Europe, Israel, and New Zealand, will take part in the three-year, €3.4 million ($US4.3 million) project.

McCaskill and colleagues plan to develop microscale electronic devices called Microscopic Chemically Reactive Electronic Agents or MICREAgents that contain electronic circuits on tiny microchips, less than 100 micrometers across, called lablets. These lablets will be able to self-assemble in pairs or in chains like dominoes to enclose transient reaction compartments. The connection process of lablets is expected enable the devices to transfer information from one to another.

Lablets will be able to selectively concentrate, process, and release chemicals into the surrounding solution, under local electronic control, in much the same way as genetic information in cells controls their chemical processes. The devices are expected to integrate electronic functions similar to components like transistors, sensors, and actuators that can translate electronic signals into chemical processes, and record the results of this processing as well.

Intelligent MICREAgents are expected to be added to chemical mixtures, and then stimulate and control further chemical processes based on the program stored within. The chemical processes planned for MICREAgents are the ability to concentrate and purify chemicals, perform reactions in programmed cascades, sense reaction completion, and transport and release products to defined locations.

While the microscale devices are expected to be able to allow self-replication of their chemical and electronic information, they will remain under the control of their programmed circuitry, and thus are not anticipated to be a runaway threat to the environment. The MICREAgent project will build on research completed last year by McCaskill and colleagues, and funded by FP7, to construct the first electronically programmable chemical cell.

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