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New chemistry method uses 'test tubes' far smaller than the width of a hair

Using a water droplet 1 trillion times smaller than a liter of club soda as a sort of nanoscale test tube, a University of Washington scientist is conducting chemical analysis and experimentation at unprecedented tiny scales.

The method captures a single cell, or even a small subcellular structure called an organelle, within a droplet. It then employs a powerful laser microscope to study the contents and examine chemical processes, and a laser beam is used to manipulate the cell or even just a few molecules, combining them with other molecules to form new substances.

This nanoscale "laboratory" is so minuscule that it covers just 1 percent of the width of a human hair, said Daniel Chiu, a UW associate chemistry professor who is developing the unique method.

"Anything you can do in the test tube we hope to be able to do in the droplet. We just don't need a lot of cells. We don't even need one cell, just a few molecules," Chiu said.

The new approach makes it easier to get a wide range of information about a cell. Researchers typically use microscopy to see how proteins move within a cell and collect spatial information, but that provides very little biochemical information, Chiu said. Likewise, they can use large amounts of material in a test tube to understand biochemical processes, but that doesn't provide the fine detail of microscopy.

"The cell is very small but it is very complex," Chiu said. "It has many hundreds of thousands of proteins. It is probably the ultimate nanomachine."

The new method, employing a process called microfluidics, allows researchers to perform chemical analysis and to study structure and form at the same time.

The tiny droplet is contained in a microfluidic device, which is far too small to be seen with the naked eye and is mounted on a platform about the size of a dime so researchers can carry it from one place to another. The device has water in one channel and oil in an adjo
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Contact: Vince Stricherz
vinces@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
29-Aug-2005


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