Scientists create 'acoustic tweezers' made out of ultrasounds

Single-celled creatures on the lam, beware! Scientists have devised a method utilizing ultrasounds to hold small bits of matter (including living cells) by seemingly invisible means. The technique, called "acoustic tweezers," appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Penn State University research team has concocted a device with the ability to "touchlessly" hold and isolate a 1 mm roundworm that goes by the name Caenorhabditis elegans. The method utilizes ultrasounds, the same noninvasive beams that doctors use to peek in on developing embryos while still in utero. By creating vibrations in a liquid medium using electrical currents, the research team has demonstrated the ability to capture microscopic specimens, or chunks of inorganic matter.

While they're calling them "tweezers," this sounds a lot more like an invisible jail cell for cells to me. (A cell cell?)


Photo Credit: Penn State

The device may prove a powerful new tool for biomedical research. Specifically, "acoustic tweezers will be used to position cells for interrogation by pulses of drug-like molecules to test as well as to exert mechanical forces on the cell wall," commented researcher Stephen Benkovic in a release by the university. "The cells will contain bio-chemical markers, so we can observe the effect of drug pulses or pressure on the cell's biochemistry."

So far, the technique has only demonstrated the ability to manipulate objects ranging from micrometers to millimeters, although higher frequencies should theoretically allow scientists to push and prod nanoscale objects. Currently,the only method to precisely manipulate molecular-scale matter is by using "optical tweezers" made from powerful focused lasers. Acoustic tweezers have the potential to be far more efficient.

"We believe the device can be easily manufactured at a cost far lower than say, optical tweezers, which use lasers to manipulate single particles," commented Penn State associate professor of bioengineering Tony Jun Huang. "Optical tweezers require power densities 10,000,000 times greater than our acoustic tweezers, and the lasers can heat up and damage the cells, unlike ultrasound."

According to the team, this technology could ultimately lead to compact, noninvasive and inexpensive point-of-care applications, such as blood cell and cancer cell sorting and diagnostics.

Also, to put bad microbes in cell prison.

PNAS and Penn State , via EurekaAlert

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