Scientists at Stanford University have done the next best thing to packaging living cells in individual boxes for study. Borrowing microfabrication techniques from electrical engineering, the researchers have created a specially prepared surface that holds millions of cell-sized squares composed of an artificial membrane that closely mimics the surface of living cells.
According to the researchers, the ability to work with these independent membranes that are uniform in size and fixed in space makes many new experiments possible.
"We started out looking for better ways to study cell membranes. By applying micro-patterning to membranes, we've come up with something completely new and we're still coming to grips with the implications," said graduate student Jay T. Groves. The work is reported in a paper in the Jan. 31 issue of the journal Science, co-authored by Groves, chemistry Professor Steven G. Boxer and Ginzton Laboratory research associate Nick Ulman. According to the scientists, not only are the micro-membranes likely to become an important research tool, but the system also could serve as the basis for improved cell and drug screening methods because it is ideally suited for automation.
The researchers believe this is the first time that microfabrication techniques have been applied to an entire biological system like a membrane. They were able to do this by adapting standard photolithography techniques from microelectronics to cover a surface of silica coated with silicon dioxide with a pattern of microscopic squares. Each square was about five microns (about five thousandths of a millimeter) on a side. Its surface was treated to be chemically compatible with the membrane. The surface of the borders that separate the squares, however, was made chemically repulsive. A square centimeter of this array contains 2.8 million of these microscopic "corrals."