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Beam of Light Picks Up Cells

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 31, 2007 -- A beam of light has been used for the first time to pick up, hold, and move around individual cells and other objects on the surface of a silicon microchip.

The new technology could become an important tool for both biological and materials research, said Matthew J. Lang and David C. Appleyard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose work is being published in an upcoming issue of the journal Lab on a Chip. Lang is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Appleyard is a graduate student in Biological Engineering.
MIT assistant professor Matthew Lang (left) and graduate student David Appleyard have developed optical tweezers that allow them to move, control and measure objects placed on a silicon chip. The new technology could become an important tool for both biological and materials research. (Photo: Donna Coveney/MIT)
The idea of using light beams as tweezers to manipulate cells and tiny objects has been around for at least 30 years. But the MIT researchers have found a way to combine this powerful tool for moving, controlling and measuring objects with the highly versatile world of microchip design and manufacturing.

Optical tweezers, as the technology is known, represent “one of the world's smallest microtools,” said Lang. “Now, we're applying it to building (things) on a chip.”

“We've shown that you could merge everything people are doing with optical trapping with all the exciting things you can do on a silicon wafer. There could be lots of uses at the biology-and-electronics interface,” said Appleyard.

For example, he said, many people are studying how neurons communicate by depositing them on microchips where electrical circuits etched into the chips monitor their electrical behavior. “They randomly put cells down on a surface, and hope one lands on (or near) a (sensor) so its activity can be measured. With (our technology), you can put the cell right down next to the sensors.” Not only can motions be precisely controlled with the device, but it can also provide very precise measurements of a cell's position.

Optical tweezers use the tiny force of a beam of light from a laser to push around and control tiny objects, from cells to plastic beads. They usually work on a glass surface mounted inside a microscope so that the effects can be observed.
MIT researchers trapped 15 E. coli cells in place on a silicon chip to form the letters MIT using a "tractor beam" of light. (Image courtesy Matthew Lang and David Appleyard, MIT)
But silicon chips are opaque to light, so applying this technique to them not an obvious move, the researchers said, since the optical tweezers use light beams that have to travel through the material to reach the working surface. The key to making it work in a chip is that silicon is transparent to infrared wavelengths of light -- which can be easily produced by lasers, and used instead of the visible light beams.

To develop the system, Lang and Appleyard weren't sure what thickness and surface texture of wafers, the thin silicon slices used to manufacture microchips, would work best, and the devices are expensive and usually available only in quantity. “Being at MIT, where there is such a strength in microfabrication, I was able to get wafers that had been thrown out,” Appleyard said. “I posted signs saying, 'I'm looking for your broken wafers'.”
Six plastic beads are held in a hexagon formation with an optical trap near a microfabricated line structure on a silicon wafer. (Image courtesy Matthew Lang and David Appleyard, MIT)
After testing different samples to determine which worked best, they were able to order a set that were just right for the work. They then tested the system with a variety of cells and tiny beads, including some that were large by the standards of optical tweezer work. They were able to manipulate a square with a hollow center that was 20 micrometers, or millionths of a meter, across -- allowing them to demonstrate that even larger objects could be moved and rotated. Other test objects had dimensions of only a few nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Virtually all living cells come in sizes that fall within that nanometer-to-micrometers range and are thus subject to being manipulated by the system.

As a demonstration of the system's versatility, Appleyard said, they set it up to collect and hold 16 tiny living E. coli cells at once on a microchip, forming them into the letters MIT.

The work was supported by the Biotechnology Training Program of the National Institutes of Health, the W.M. Keck Foundation, and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

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Oct 2007
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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