Israel, for a very small nation, is always on the cutting edge of military research. Researchers at Tel Aviv University have developed a new lab-on-a-chip, which may be put to use in a variety of military, security, and medical applications.
The researchers say that animals have always been the first line of detection for toxins and pollutants, and that even today man-made detection devices fall short of nature's mechanisms. However, they say their device, the latest entry in the burgeoning field of labs-on-a-chip, may change that by borrowing from nature itself.
The new chips uses tiny light emitting bacteria affixed to the chip's surface. Prof. Shacham-Diamand describes, “We’ve developed a platform — essentially a micro-sized, quarter-inch square 'lab' — employing genetically engineered bacteria that light up when presented with a stressor in water.”
The chip has tiny light detectors that can tell if the bacteria is lighting up, signaling detection of the target chemical.
As opposed to animal detection, Professor Shacham-Diamand states that his team's design is much safer and more effective. He adds, "Our system is based on a plastic chip that is more humane, much faster, more sensitive and much cheaper. Basically, ours is an innovative advance in the ‘lab on a chip’ system. It’s an ingenious nano-scale platform designed to get information out of biological events. Our solution can monitor water with never-before-achieved levels of accuracy. But as a platform, it can also be used for unlimited purposes, such as investigating stem cell therapies or treating cancer."
The university is currently tweaking its water-testing mini-labs to measure the response of various strains of genetically engineered bacteria to toxins or pathogens in the water, such as E. Coli bacteria. The state of Hawaii and multiple cities in Israel have expressed interest in the project.
The researchers are also engineering bacteria which detect biological weapons. This line of work is funded by a United States Department of Defense Projects Agency (DARPA) to the tune of $3M USD.
A third line of work is cancer detection. Professor Shacham-Diamand presented his research to 400 physicians at a World Cancer Conference recently, and is now collaborating with them to develop new bacteria chips to test for cancer indicators. He states, "They need sensors like Tel Aviv University’s lab on a chip. It’s a hot topic now."
Whether it comes to medicine or to the military, the new living lab-on-a-chip seems to have great potential to create cutting edge sensors.