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Microfluidic devices gently rotate small organisms and cells

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A method to rotate single particles, cells or organisms using acoustic waves in a microfluidic device will allow researchers to take three dimensional images with only a cell phone.

Acoustic waves can move and position biological specimens along the x, y and z axes, but for the first time researchers at Penn State have used them to gently and safely rotate samples, a crucial capability in single-cell analysis, drug discovery and organism studies.

The research, published today in Nature Communications, was led by Tony Jun Huang, professor of engineering science and mechanics and Huck Distinguished Chair in Bioengineering Science. Huang and his group created an acoustofluidic rotational manipulation (ARM) method that traps bubbles in a series of small cavities inside a microfluidic device. Acoustic transducers similar to ultrasound imaging transducers create an acoustic wave in the fluid, making the bubbles vibrate, which creates microvortexes in the flowing liquid that are tunable so the sample rotates in any direction and at any desired speed.

"Currently confocal microscopes are required in many biological, biochemical and biomedical studies, but many labs do not have access to a confocal microscope, which costs more than $200,000," said Huang. "Our ARM method is a very inexpensive platform and it is compatible with all the optical characterization tools. You can literally use a cell phone to do three-dimensional imaging."

To demonstrate the device's capabilities, the researchers rotated C. elegans, a model organism about a millimeter in length frequently used in biological studies. They also acoustically rotated and imaged a HeLa cancer cell.