Roukes says that their current generation of devices is sensitive to added mass at the level of a few zeptograms, which is few billionths of a trillionth of a gram. In their experiments this represents about thirty xenon atoms-- and it is the typical mass of an individual protein molecule.
"We hope to transform this chip-based technology into systems that are useful for picking out and identifying specific molecules, one-by-one--for example certain types of proteins secreted in the very early stages of cancer," Roukes says.
"The fundamental problem with identifying these proteins is that one must sort through millions of molecules to make the measurement. You need to be able to pick out the 'needle' from the 'haystack,' and that's hard to do, among other reasons because 95 percent of the proteins in the blood have nothing to do with cancer."
The new method might ultimately permit the creation of microchips, each possessing arrays of miniature mass spectrometers, which are devices for identifying molecules based on their weight. Today, high-throughput proteomics searches are often done at facilities possessing arrays of conventional mass spectrometers that fill an entire laboratory and can cost upwards of a million dollars each, Roukes adds. By contrast, future nanodevice-based systems should cost a small fraction of today's technology, and an entire massively-parallel nanodevice system will probably ultimately fit on a desktop.
Roukes says his group has technology in hand to push mass-sensing technology to even more sensitive levels, probably to the point that individual hydrogen atoms can be weighed. Such an intricately accurate method of determining atomic-scale masses would be quite useful in areas such as quantum optics, in which individual atoms are m