Ion channels are particularly important in muscle and nerve cells, where they facilitate communication and the transfer of electrical signals from one cell to the next.
Within the 10-by-10 millimeter chip -- roughly the size of a dime -- cells are sealed inside 16 pyramidal pores, analyzed, and then can be removed intact. Since the technology does not kill the cells, it could be used to screen and identify different crop lines, Porterfield said.
"For example, let's say you were interested in developing corn varieties that need less fertilizer," he said. "If you had a library of genes that were associated with high nitrogen-use efficiency -- thus making the plant need less nitrogen fertilizer -- you could transform a group of maize cells with these genes and then screen each cell to determine the most efficient. Then you could raise the one that needed the least fertilizer, rather than putting a lot of different genes into hundreds of plants and waiting for them to grow, as is currently done."
In addition to the potential savings in time and money, Porterfield said the chip has allowed him to do research that would otherwise be impossible. He recently conducted a study on the "Vomit Comet," the nickname for a high-flying research plane used by NASA to briefly simulate zero gravity. The experiment analyzed gravity's effect on plant development, trying to solve the riddle of how a plant determines which way is "up."
"We conducted research with the chip while we were flying in parabolas over the Gulf of Mexico, going from two times Earth's gravity to zero gravity again and again," he said. "There is absolutely no way this experiment could have been done without this chip."