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Exploring bio-nano hybrid device manufacturing

Exploring bio-nano hybrid device manufacturing
Ravi Saraf studies bio-nano hybrid systems that harness chemical reactions in living cells.

Now the University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering is exploring the "science of manufacturability" for bio-nano devices based on microorganisms. A $391,056 grant from the National Science Foundation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds this work.

This project focuses on transformative nanotechnology. The goal is to create a top-down, inexpensive self-assembly approach to fabricate a bio-nano device that can be transitioned from the lab to a manufacturable system. Success eventually could create new jobs producing these bio-nano hybrids.

“Each cell is a miniature chemical reactor,” Saraf said, describing how electrons shuttle from one molecule to another in a process called redox. “The question is, ‘Can we use this electron production to flip a switch in an electronic device, on or off, similar to a transistor?’”

Saraf's team has developed specialized devices that can sense a single electron while functioning at room temperature, instead of requiring lower temperatures where cells cease to function.

Another challenge is size incompatibility between cell and device, with a cell (measured in microns) typically 1,000 times bigger than an electron (measured in nanometers).

“We made a nanoparticle-based device that is as large as a cell and operates at room temperature,” Saraf said, “and we have shown that the cell can turn this device on and off when it is fed nutrients.” He will continue to focus on cells’ metabolic activity, regulating their exposure to a food source, to ultimately build “smart sensors” that respond to specific chemicals.

Saraf said this work applies to both microorganisms and mammalian cells for driving nanostructured devices. It “will represent a new paradigm of hybrid bio-nano devices” that could be used in a broad range of possible applications. For example, Saraf envisions developing a bio-nano hybrid device where the living cell in the device could sense the presence of a chemical, such as a toxin in water, triggering the nanodevice to send a digital signal.

Applying this research with living cells in the human body could reveal how drugs affect cells, to predict how cells will respond, Saraf said. Another example could be a microorganism as an intelligent and adaptable “driver” that is sensitive enough to detect agents, such as anthrax. It may even be possible to extend the idea to directly convert food for the microorganism into electricity.