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Intelligent Machines

Biotech Microjaws

Squeezing all the elements of a biology experiment onto a dime-sized chip promises to speed up everything from the discovery of new drugs to the creation of biotech crops. But fabricating the tiny mechanical parts needed to, say, inject individual cells with genes or drug molecules has not been easy. Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories have created a silicon chip containing microscopic “jaws” with tiny teeth that move back and forth across a chip’s microscopic channels (photo). Biologists could use the jaws to gently puncture as many as 10 cells flowing through a channel each second-a dramatic improvement over conventional methods that require manual piercing of cells, one at a time. The Sandia engineers are working on replacing the teeth on the jaws with hollow silicon needles. Needles could simultaneously pierce the cells and deliver a gene conferring a desired trait, for example, or a candidate drug molecule. Sandia engineer Jay Jakubczak hopes to license the technology to biotech firms within a year.

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