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New Microchip for Protein Sorting

f good laboratory tools with which to prepare biological samples to analyze proteins, said Han, who also has affiliations in MIT's RLE, Computational and Systems Biology Initiative, Center for Materials Science and Engineering and Microsystems Technology Laboratories.

"I shifted my attention from DNA into the area of protein separation around 2002 with the shift to proteomics (the study of proteins)," Han said. "But the field was using decades-old gel electrophoresis technology. There is a big gap in the need for technology in this area."

Han and Fu therefore devised the anisotropic sieve that is embedded into a silicon chip. A biological sample containing different proteins is placed in a sample reservoir above the chip. The sample is then run through the sieve of the chip continuously. The chip is designed with a network of microfluidic channels surrounding the sieve, and the anisotropy (directional property) in the sieve causes proteins of different sizes to follow distinct migration trajectories, leading to efficient continuous-flow separation. The current sieve has an array of nanofluidic filters of about 55 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, wide.

"The proteins to be sorted are forced to take two orthogonal paths. Each path is engineered with different sieving characters. When proteins of different sizes are injected into the sieve under applied electric fields, they will separate into different streams based on size," Han explained. At the bottom of the chip the separated proteins are collected in individual chambers. Scientists then can test the proteins.

While other scientists have used similar continuous flow techniques to separate large molecules like long DNA, the MIT team succeeded with the tinier proteins. "This is the first time physiologically relevant molecules like proteins have been separated in such a manner," said Han. "We can separate the molecules in about a minute with the current device versus hours
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