Chemists and engineers at Harvard University have fashioned nanowires into a new type of V-shaped transistor small enough to be used for sensitive probing of the interior of cells.
The new device, described in the journal Science, is smaller than many viruses and about one-hundredth the width of the probes now used to take cellular measurements, which can be nearly as large as the cells themselves. Its slenderness is a marked improvement over these bulkier probes, which can damage cells upon insertion, reducing the accuracy or reliability of any data gained.
"Our use of these nanoscale field-effect transistors, or nanoFETs, represents the first totally new approach to intracellular studies in decades, as well as the first measurement of the inside of a cell with a semiconductor device," says senior author Charles M. Lieber, the Mark Hyman, Jr. Professor of Chemistry at Harvard. "The nanoFETs are the first new electrical measurement tool for intracellular studies since the 1960s, during which time electronics have advanced considerably."
Lieber and colleagues say nanoFETs could be used to measure ion flux or electrical signals in cells, particularly neurons. The devices could also be fitted with receptors or ligands to probe for the presence of individual biochemicals within a cell.
Human cells can range in size from about 10 microns (millionths of a meter) for nerve cells to 50 microns for cardiac cells. While current probes measure up to 5 microns in diameter, nanoFETs are several orders of magnitude smaller: less than 50 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in total size, with the nanowire probe itself measuring just 15 nanometers in diameter.