Explore and augment the inner world of a cell

Artist’s impression of the Cell Rover, an intracellular antenna to explore and augment the inner world of the cell. Credits: Irakli Zurabishvili for Deblina Sarkar, with models by IronWeber and Lauri Purhonen.

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have designed a miniature antenna that can work wirelessly inside a living cell, opening up possibilities in medical diagnostics and treatment and other scientific processes thanks to the antenna’s potential to monitor and even direct cellular activity in real time.

“The most interesting aspect of this research is that we can create cyborgs on a cellular scale,” says Deblina Sarkar, assistant professor and AT&T Career Development Chair at MIT Media Lab and head of the Nano-Cybernetic Biotrek Lab. ” able to blend the versatility of information technology at the cell level, the building blocks of biology. “

An article describing the research was published in the journal today Nature communications.

The technology, called Cell Rover by the researchers, represents the first demonstration of an antenna capable of operating inside a cell and is compatible with 3D biological systems. Typical bioelectronic interfaces, Sarkar says, are millimeter or even centimeter in size, and not only are they highly invasive, but they don’t even provide the resolution needed to interact with individual cells wirelessly, especially considering that changes to even a cell can affect a whole organism.

The antenna developed by Sarkar’s team is much smaller than a cell. In fact, in the team’s research with oocyte cells, the antenna accounted for less than 0.05 percent of the cell volume, placing it well below a size that would intrude and damage the cell.

Finding a way to build an antenna of that size to work inside a cell was a key challenge.

This is because conventional antennas must be of a size comparable to the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves they transmit and receive. These wavelengths are very large: they represent the speed of light divided by the frequency of the wave. At the same time, increasing the frequency to reduce that ratio and antenna size is counterproductive because high frequencies produce heat that is harmful to living tissues.

The antenna developed by the Media Lab researchers converts electromagnetic waves into acoustic waves, whose wavelengths are five orders of magnitude smaller, which represent the speed of sound divided by the frequency of the wave, compared to those of the waves. electromagnetic.

This conversion from electromagnetic waves to acoustic waves is achieved by manufacturing the miniature antennas using material that is referred to as magnetostrictive. When a magnetic field is applied to the antenna, powering and activating it, the magnetic domains within the magnetostrictive material align with the field, creating tension in the material, the way metal fragments woven into a piece of cloth could react to a strong magnet, causing the cloth to twist.

When an alternating magnetic field is applied to the antenna, the variable strain and stress (pressure) produced in the material are what create the acoustic waves in the antenna, says Baju Joy, a student in Sarkar’s lab and lead author of this work. . “We also developed a new strategy that uses a non-uniform magnetic field to introduce the rovers into the cells,” adds Joy.

Configured this way, the antenna could be used to explore the fundamentals of biology when natural processes occur, Sarkar says. Instead of destroying cells to examine their cytoplasm as is usually the case, the Cell Rover could monitor the development or division of a cell, detecting different chemicals and biomolecules such as enzymes or physical changes such as in cell pressure, all in real time. and in vivo.

According to the researchers, materials such as polymers that undergo changes in mass or stress in response to chemical or biomolecular changes, already used in medical and other research, could be integrated with the operation of the Cell Rover. Such integration could provide insights not offered by current observation techniques involving cell destruction.

With such capabilities, Cell Rovers could be invaluable in cancer and neurodegenerative disease research, for example. As Sarkar explains, the technology could be used to detect and monitor the biochemical and electrical changes associated with the disease as it progresses in individual cells. Applied in the field of drug discovery, the technology could illuminate the reactions of living cells to different drugs.

Due to the sophistication and scale of nanoelectronic devices such as transistors and switches, “which represent five decades of tremendous advances in information technology,” says Sarkar, the Cell Rover, with its mini antenna, could perform functions ranging from all the way to intracellular computation and information processing for the autonomous exploration and modulation of the cell. Research has shown that multiple Cell Rovers can be involved, even within a single cell, to communicate with each other and outside the cells.

“The Cell Rover is an innovative concept in that it can incorporate sensors, communications and information technologies within a living cell,” says Anantha P. Chandrakasan, Dean of the MIT School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “This opens up unprecedented opportunities for highly accurate diagnostics, therapy and drug discovery, as well as creating a new direction at the intersection of biology and electronic devices.”

The researchers called their intracellular antenna technology Cell Rover to invoke, like that of a Mars rover, its mission to explore a new frontier.

“You can think of the Cell Rover,” says Sarkar, “as if it were on an expedition, exploring the inner world of the cell.”


New membrane antenna much smaller than conventional ones


More information:
Baju Joy et al, Cell Rover, a miniature magnetostrictive antenna for wireless operation within living cells, Nature communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-022-32862-4

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Citation: Cell Rover: Exploring and augmenting a cell’s inner world (2022, September 22) retrieved September 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-09-cell-rover-exploring-augmenting-world.html

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