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UK boffins demo cell-to-electronics interface

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Researchers at the University of Newcastle in the UK have demonstrated a communication pathway between living cells and electronics.

The recipe is based on genetically-engineered protein cells from the ovaries of a Chinese hamster, which produce nitric oxide (NO) when exposed to light. The mutant cells where then coupled to a platinum electrode, resulting in a three-step signalling process: the cell converted the optical signal (light) into a chemical signal, and the electrode turned the chemical signal into an electrical signal.

The researches say their aim is to overcome a fundamental problem in the creation of “bio-hybrid” robots: biological processes aren’t compatible with electrical processes, and many cells die on exposure to electrical charges.

Daniel Frankel of the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering has told Phys.org: “Usually the electronics are modified to fit the biological system of interest with limited success. This is the first time that we have tried an alternative approach, to modify the biology (via genetic engineering) to fit the electronics.”

The researchers chose nitric oxide as their signaller because it’s already widely used in nature for cell signalling, playing a role in activities as diverse as muscle relaxation, vasodilation, strokes, penile erections and ischaemia (inadequate blood supply).

The molecule permeates cells, has a brief half-life, and is gaseous in any cell environment. This last characteristic means the device sensing the molecule doesn’t have to cope with it existing as either gas or liquid.

The genetic engineering involved changing the cells’ electron transfer pathway, and inserting “light-oxygen-voltage” amino acids to get the protein to produce NO in response to light.

Oh, and the cells are able to reproduce themselves, which is simpler for the build than trying to mass-produce modified bio-compatible electronics.

This work forms part of a project to develop a swimming bio-hybrid dubbed Cyberplasm. ®

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