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Microchip Aids Rapid Microorganism Identification

Researchers have developed a glass/silicon polymer chip with a microscopically small channel that enables clinicians to rapidly sort microbes using dielectrophoresis, according to findings in a new study.

The goal is to develop a battery-operated, hand-held device using the technology to reduce from days to minutes the amount of time needed to identify and characterize microorganisms, Mark A. Hayes, PhD, associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University in Tempe, and colleagues reported in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

Traditional methods of identifying microorganisms require the time-consuming process of growing cultures from food or infected patients and then sending them out to a laboratory. The novel microchip technology relies on dielectrophoresis, a process that involves applying voltage to bacteria causing them to become trapped at different points along the microchip’s channel based on its molecular and electrical properties.

The technology has successfully distinguished between extremely similar pathogenic and nonpathogenic strains of Escherichia coli serotypes, Hayes and colleagues said.

They injected three E. coli strains into a single microchannel and applied voltage to drive the cells downstream. Geometric features of the channel created an electrical field with different intensity levels at different regions, creating a gradient insular dielectrophoretic force that allowed some cells to pass and trapped others based on phenotype.

“The fact that we can distinguish such similar bacteria has significant implications for doctors and health officials,” Hayes said.

So far, the researchers have only tested pure cultures, but aim to test complex mixtures of particles similar to those found in nature or the human body in the near future.

The next step will be to create cheap, portable devices that could enable point-of-care or field-based analysis, potentially yielding more rapid responses to disease and contamination.

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