October 21, 2006
Biochip Speeds Cell Electrical Measurements 60 Times

Advances in instrumentation are accelerating the rate at which scientists can do experiments.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Purdue University researchers have developed a biochip that measures the electrical activities of cells and is capable of obtaining 60 times more data in just one reading than is possible with current technology.

In the near term, the biochip could speed scientific research, which could accelerate drug development for muscle and nerve disorders like epilepsy and help create more productive crop varieties.

"Instead of doing one experiment per day, as is often the case, this technology is automated and capable of performing hundreds of experiments in one day," said Marshall Porterfield, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering who leads the team developing the chip.

The device works by measuring the concentration of ions tiny charged particles as they enter and exit cells. The chip can record these concentrations in up to 16 living cells temporarily sealed within fluid-filled pores in the microchip. With four electrodes per cell, the chip delivers 64 simultaneous, continuous sources of data.

This additional data allows for a deeper understanding of cellular activity compared to current technology, which measures only one point outside one cell and cannot record simultaneously, Porterfield said. The chip also directly records ion concentrations without harming the cells, whereas present methods cannot directly detect specific ions, and cells being studied typically are destroyed in the process, he said. There are several advantages to retaining live cells, he said, such as being able to conduct additional tests or monitor them as they grow.

One (I think mistaken) argument made against the practicality of pursuing Aubrey de Grey's SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) proposal to reverse aging is that the problems we need to solve in order to reverse aging won't become solvable in the next few decades. Specifically, one group of critics recently argued that a rate of biotechnological advance that is faster than the semiconductor industry's Moore's Law would be required in order to solve the problems needed to reverse the aging process within the lifetimes of people currently alive. But I think these critics are missing an obvious reason why biotechnology can advance more rapidly than computer semiconductor technology.

The biochip reported above is able to speed up the collection of cellular metabolic information with a leap forward that is many times greater than the rate at which Intel co-founder Gordon Moore' predicted that computers would become faster. It is very important to notice why this advance was possible: The advances made in the semiconductor industry that allow manipulations at very small scales that took decades to achieve are now being harnessed to make sensors and other automated instrumentation for biological experimentation. The development of biochips which manipulate and measure matter on a small scale can therefore happen much more rapidly than semiconductor advances.

In a nutshell, we have the technology to do lots of small scale manipulations and measurements. Scientists and engineers who apply that technology to biological problems can therefore make huge leaps in the development of capabilities to study and manipulate biological systems.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 October 21 10:06 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

Gerald Hibbs said at October 24, 2006 12:26 AM:

It's not the best analogy ever, but I look at this circumstance and compare it to China's technology/economy with regards to America/the West.

Once China began to abandon Maoism they have taken a great leap forward. Because they can stand on America's shoulders they can leap frog normal development patterns. They don't have to develop technology and build their way to our level but rather can simply plug into the latest tech.

Similarly, biotech scientists are beginning to harness the abilities of computers in their fields. Since computers have already made lots of advances over the last 40 years the development rate will be greater than these cynical experts imagine. In this example it looks like this single advance puts them at least 64 times faster than before. That makes Moore's law look lazy and undisciplined.

Similarly, other scientists are harnessing robotics to automate experiments. Combine advance of the post with robotics and perhaps you could have a single scientist moving from doing ONE experiment per day to THOUSANDS per day. Then the scientist can abandon the time consuming manual labor of messing with test tubes and centrifuges and concentrate merely on establishing parameters for the experiments and analyzing resulting data.

I see Universities doing lots of work on robotics, I wonder how much of their time is spent with trying to develop tech to help the other fields in this way?

epobirs said at October 24, 2006 3:08 AM:

Some places that had embarrassingly bad telco service just a couple decades ago are now enjoying broadband connections that are the stuff of dreams for most Americans.

Once the decision was made to get serious about the infrastructure, they went directly to the latest technology and didn't have to keep squeezing value out of copper lines that that had been installed in the 80s with the expectation they'd be in use for 50 years with a ROI calculation based on that premise.

Randall Parker said at October 24, 2006 5:11 PM:


I agree about the leverage to be gained by robots. Eventually robots will speed the rate of advance by orders of magnitude.

Software simulations are going to mature and take on an increasing role in performing experiments as well.

These developments are why I think we are going to see much larger strides in therapy development in the next 10 years than the last 10 years. Go out another 10 years into the future and the rate of therapy development should make the current rate look like a snail's pace.

At some point we are going to turn the corner and possess the ability to grow replacement parts for just about every organ, bone, muscle, and other part of the body. We'll have highly automated systems for growing the parts cheaply. We'll have great cell therapies and gene therapies too.

A baby born today in industrialized countries probably won't ever grow physically older than what a 40 year old is like today. Treatments to slow and reverse aging will prevent them from getting really old.

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