Bio Breakthrough Signals Future Sensors

Bio Breakthrough Signals Future Sensors

Alyssa Danigelis

March 19, 2010 16:28:00

ElectricSlide A piece of research news went practically unnoticed recently, except to the scientists in the field who saw it for what it is: an exciting development that could lead to sci-fi-like biosensors and ultra-efficient microelectronics.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences have been studying the way electrons move between proteins in cells. Using X-ray crystallography they were able to create an image showing just how it happens on a molecular level. Their findings were published (abstract) in Science on March 12. Fortunately, you don’t have to consult any AP bio notes to find out what this means. Associate professor of biochemistry Carrie Wilmot led the research, and explained the discovery and the impact it could have on the tech world.

Electrons “I view [the protein] as a wire,” she said. “But one that appears to have no insulation to contain the electricity. You mix it with other bare wires, and somehow the electron gets to the end of the right wire.” Proteins–so smart! The more we can understand precisely how that works, the closer we’ll be to using proteins for ultra-efficient microelectronics.

There is also potential for insanely good biosensors. For example, fish going bad release histamine. Existing biosensors aren’t particularly sensitive to it, plus they’re expensive, so inspectors usually rely on other methods. Wilmot envisions her research being used to develop inexpensive, highly sensitive biosensors. Essentially, an artificial protein would be coupled with a sensing protein that can faithfully transfer electron signals to an electrode, which provides a readout. Such sensors could also have clinical uses–possibly detecting cancer and disease at earlier stages.

“It’s almost like Star Trek,” Wilmot said. “It’s like the neural gel pack idea where they’ve got complex electrical patterns in organic materials.” But she’s careful to emphasize that tech like that is still a long way off. For now, her lab is going to keep mapping mysterious electron pathways.

Photo: Electricity on the go. Credit: Ken Bosma. Figure: Proteins doing their thing, courtesy Carrie Wilmot.


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