Microchips and bacteria are the basic structures of organization in computing and biology, respectively. They occupy two realms of study that often feel worlds apart. But now, a recent study has bridged the gap, at least by a tiny bit.
A pair of researchers from Columbia University in New York City have developed a microchip that allows for electrochemical imaging of the signaling molecules used by bacterial colonies, through both time and space. In other words, these are chips that can “listen” to bacteria, and record when and where bacterial movements and actions are occurring. It’s the first time integrated circuit technology — the name of the electronic components used in computers and communications devices — have been used for such an endeavor.
It’s a rare collaboration between electrical engineering and life science. “[The graduate students] basically speak completely different languages, in terms of the science,” says Lars Dietrich, a coauthor of the study. “But they got along and did an excellent job with this experiment.”
Dietrich, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Columbia, explains that it’s very difficult to follow the small molecules used in cell-to-cell signaling and metabolic processes, which are essential for growth, survival and reproduction. That led to the idea of a microscopic tracking device. “We thought we might be able to monitor these compounds directly” through the observation and measurement of certain chemical properties.
The research team hopes this technology can eventually help them to study bacterial processes. Dietrich also contends that there is more to these chips than simply a faster way of observing and collecting data.
“What’s most interesting to me,” he says “is we’re able to not just monitor the bacteria’s signaling molecules, but also change their redox state.” A redox state refers to the ability of an atom or molecule to acquire or donate an electron. It’s a fundamental quality that is responsible for indicating if and how a chemical reaction will proceed. Dietrich is essentially saying that through these chips, the researchers have agency over a bacteria’s ability to run its own chemical processes, and change how a bacterial colony responds to its environment.
Although this technology is still in its infancy, it already carries implications for biofilm formation — the ability of microbes to aggregate together and stick to a surface. It’s a common characteristic of disease-causing bacteria. Dietrich contends that in changing redox states of small chemical compounds, scientists might be able to indirectly change and hinder biofilm formation.
“It would be nice to eventually develop something used in medical treatments against pathogenic biofilms,” he says. “But it’s far in the future.”
For now, Dietrich and his research team are focused on running more experiments to test the new technology further, for both observing bacteria and in affecting change at a chemical level. They have already developed a new, more powerful chip to this end, and are excited to see where this cutting-edge research takes them.