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Nanoscale 'stealth' probe slides into cell walls seamlessly, say Stanford engineers
Date:4/1/2010

ing suction, we can use high voltage to puncture holes in their membranes, both of which are fairly destructive," he said. "Many of the cells don't survive." That limits the duration of any observations, particularly electrical measurements of cell function.

The key to the probe's easy insertion and the membrane's desire to retain it is that Melosh and Almquist based its design on a type of protein naturally found in cell walls that acts as a gatekeeper, controlling which molecules are allowed in or out.

A cell membrane is essentially a walled fortress. Within the wall itself is a water-repellant, or hydrophobic, zone. Since almost all molecules in a living being are water soluble, the hydrophobic region acts as a barrier to keep the molecules from slipping through the cell wall. The only way in or out is via the specialized proteins that form bridges across the membrane.

Those "transmembrane" protein gateways match the architecture of the membrane, with a hydrophobic center section bounded by two water soluble, or hydrophilic, layers.

"What we have done is make an inorganic version of one of those membrane proteins, which sits in the membrane without disrupting it," Melosh said. "Now we can envision using it for doing our own gate keeping."

To build their probe, Melosh and Almquist appropriated nanofabrication methods from the semiconductor industry to make tiny silicon posts, the tips of which they coated with three thin layers of metal a layer of gold between two of chromium to match the sandwich structure of the membrane. They then coated the gold band with carbon molecules to render it hydrophobic; the chromium bands are naturally hydrophilic.

"Getting that hydrophobic band just a few nanometers in thickness was an incredible technical challenge," Melosh said. Applying such a thin layer to the tip of a probe only 200 nanometers in diameter was impossible using existing methods, so he and Almquist devised
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Contact: Louis Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert  

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