Scientists create nanoscale tweezers 2,000 times thinner than human hair that extract single strands of DNA without harming living cells
- The tiny tweezers are made of a thin, sharp glass rod with electrodes at the end
- An electrical current is used to safely trap molecules like a pair of magnets
- Scientists say this could improve their understanding of diseases and therapies
Microscopic tweezers have been developed which could change the way scientists learn about diseases and develop treatments.
Researchers have unveiled the nanoscale tweezers, which are around 2,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair.
They work by using an electric current to trap molecules and pull them out of living cells without damaging either part.
Scientists have called the development a ‘vital addition’ to their toolbox, and can help them study diseased cells in more detail.
This will improve how experts can develop treatments for serious diseases and ‘ultimately improve quality of life’, they said.
Scientists at Imperial College London have invented nanoscale tweezers which can trap and remove internal parts of human cells, such as DNA or mitochondria, using an electrical current (pictured: an artist’s impression of how the tweezers could remove a mitochondrion from a cell)
The study, done by Imperial College London, revealed how the 50 nanometre wide tool could change the way scientists study the smallest parts of the human body.
A single nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre, and human hairs can be up to 100,000 nanometres thick.
Until now, cells have had to be killed or burst in order for small components such as DNA to be removed and examined.
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The nanoscale tweezers are made of a sharp glass rod with two electrodes formed of a carbon-based material similar to graphite.
They can be inserted into a living cell to remove internal parts such as the mitochondria – the powerhouse of a cell.
An electrical current is used to trap whatever researchers want to pull out, in a process called dielectrophoresis.
In dioelectrophoresis, particles become polarized – essentially magnetic – when they are pulled in two directions by electric currents.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND DNA?
Being able to better understand what happens within people’s DNA and how it changes over time could give scientists in a new window into various diseases.
Cancer is caused by a mutation in DNA which causes cells to grow uncontrollably.
And segments of DNA make up genes, meaning it is also responsible for genetic disorders and illnesses.
DNA and genes work like an instruction manual for the body, with different genes providing different instructions. But DNA can contain errors before birth or change later in life, causing serious illnesses or disabilities.
Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Down’s syndrome are all well-known genetic disorders, and being able to examine DNA from living cells can reveal how these conditions work and potentially lead to ways to prevent them.
All particles are attracted to electricity fields on some level – this is why hair is pulled towards static balloons – and will naturally move towards the strongest source of electricity.
By using two electricity sources, scientists can use the tweezers to suspend the DNA or mitochondria as if it were a piece of metal between two magnets.
This process doesn’t destroy the molecule, and the sharp, tiny glass implements means the cell parts can be removed without destroying the cell.
‘These nanoscale tweezers could be a vital addition to the toolbox for manipulating single cells and their parts,’ said researcher Dr Alex Ivanov.
‘By studying living cells at the molecular level, we can extract individual molecules from the same location with unprecedented spatial resolution and over multiple points in time.
‘This may provide a deeper understanding of cellular processes, and in establishing why cells from the same type can be very different to each other.’
An example of how it could be used is in taking out mitochondria from nerve cells.
Nerves need a lot of energy so they have a lot of mitochondria – removing them could reveal what changes in the cells of people with neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis.
And removing people’s DNA could help scientists look for disease-causing changes and mutations inside different types of cells.
The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
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