CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. researchers have made a very small research tool that may one day help scientists probe the activity of genes and proteins in a single cell, they said on Thursday, opening the door to a new realm of genetic research.
The tool is designed to do the work of current gene chip systems used to examine thousands of genes at the same time for mutations or to uncover clues to disease.
But it is made on the nano-scale — which involves objects tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.
“We have made little chips that are like the gene chips but instead of being lab scale they are molecular scale,” said Stuart Lindsay, a physics professor and researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.
“They have the potential to be used all the way down into analyzing single cells,” said Lindsay, whose research appears in the journal Science.
Current gene chips analyze entire batches of cells. This technology would allow for much more refined analysis that could detect genetic changes from one cell to another, for instance.
The work, led by Hao Yan of the institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, draws on a type of nanotechnology known as DNA origami, a method of folding a single long strand of DNA into a complex structure that is bound by short synthetic staples.
The nano probes assemble themselves in a water soluble solution and can be made at very low cost, Lindsay said.
“You end with 10,000 billion items in the test tube,” he said.
On the surface of each DNA probe is a dangling single strand of DNA that can bind to the target ribonucleic acid or RNA, the chemical messengers of genes.
Lindsay said the new system is one of the first practical applications of structural DNA nanotechnology, which uses the properties of DNA to create different nanostructures.
“I think there is huge potential to come from nanotechnology,” Lindsay said in a telephone interview. “This array is our first baby step in that direction.”
Editing by Maggie Fox and Mohammad Zargham