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A biomolecular console

In the future, could molecules in complex biotechnological processes be programmed like today's semiconductor microelectronic circuits? To find out, researchers are currently studying the interaction between biological and electrical information. Insights and applications from the field of electronic microfluidics are bringing the reality of programmable biotechnology much nearer. Meanwhile, the ability to transport, control and store minute quantities of test samples on a biochip has become an essential tool in the fields of diagnostics, genetics and pharmaceutical research.

The Fraunhofer Research Unit for Biomolecular Information Processing BioMIP, headed by Professor John McCaskill, is developing programmable bioprocessors for this purpose. At the BioAnalytica trade show in Munich, to be held for the first time from April 1-4, researchers will present in Hall A6 several prototypes of their hybrid chips developed as part of the government-sponsored BioPRO project. The concept is based on a technology patented by BioMIP. Using digitally pulsed electrical fields, biomolecules are aggregated, transported or guided in microscopic collections to suitable reagents.

It's now possible to couple the location of the molecule with switching and controlling mechanisms. Under the microscope, researchers can visually track the path of the biomolecules, marked with a fluorescent dye, and influence their flow with the push of a button.

"An additional method of moving and directing packets of molecules within such microsystems uses transporters," says Dr. Patrick Wagler. "For this purpose, we utilize polymere particles whose diameter can be less than one micrometer. DNA sections or other biomolecules adhere to their surface." By applying an electrical voltage to the electrodes, the biomolecules can be moved, stopped and transported to desired positions on the chips via micro-thin channels.

"Current applications for dynamic, programmable bio-modules lie primarily in the fields of molecular diagnostics and evolutionary biotechnology," concludes McCaskill. "In future, more advanced versions of this type of system will be able to solve more information-intensive tasks."

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. March 2003.

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