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Nanoscale Motion Detector for Drug Development and Extraterrestrial Life Search

Nanoscale Motion Detector for Drug Development and Extraterrestrial Life Search

by Giulio PriscoDecember 31, 2014

EPFL scientists have developed an extremely sensitive yet simple motion detector that can be built easily by adapting already-existent technology. The system has proven accurate with detecting bacteria, yeast, and even cancer cells, and is considered for the rapid testing of drugs and even the detection of extraterrestrial life.

The research paper, published in December on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is titled “Detecting nanoscale vibrations as signature of life.”

If something is alive, it moves. For example, a bacterium attached to the sensor will move or vibrate, and its movement will be detected as a signature of life. That is the main application of the new sensor for drug development. A sensor array could be covered with bacteria or cancer cells and incubated with various drug compounds. If the drugs are effective against the attached cells, the motion signals would decrease or stop altogether as the cells die off. This approach would be considerably quicker than current high-throughput systems used in by pharmaceutical companies when looking for candidate antibiotics or anticancer drugs.

The detection system relies only on motion rather than chemistry.

Finding Life in Extraterrestrial Environments

Nanoscale motion detector

Osteoblast cell on the surface of the cantilever in the nanoscale motion detection system.

“The system has the benefit of being completely chemistry-free. That means that it can be used anywhere – in drug testing or even in the search for extraterrestrial life.”

In fact, the researchers envisage applications to finding life in extreme and extraterrestrial environments. In a breakthrough discovery earlier this month, NASA’s Curiosity rover found organic molecules on Mars, which could indicate the presence of life on Mars. If confirmed, the detection of life on Mars would be one of the most spectacular – and important – scientific discoveries that we can imagine. It is then important to develop efficient means to study primitive life on Mars, and the EPFL nanoscale motion sensor could be very useful.

Also read: NASA Curiosity Rover Finds Organic Matter on Mars

Even small microorganisms vibrate in response to their metabolic activity, and the vibrations can be detected by the nanomotion detector. The proposed technique does not measure the chemical response of life, which would require prior knowledge of the metabolic pathways involved. Instead, it monitors the physical manifestation of any kind of metabolic activity the microorganisms might have.

[W]e’re still calling ESA and NASA to see if they’re interested.

Images from EPFL and Shutterstock.

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