Bridging the Gap Between Electronics and Biology: University of Maryland – James Clark School of Enginering

Microelectronic devices – from pacemakers to cellphones – have long shaped the course of human health and telecommunications. But, scientists have struggled to navigate the technology gap between microelectronics and the biological world.

For example, today’s consumers cannot tap into their smartphones to uncover information about an infection or illness affecting their body, nor can they use their phones to signal a device to administer an antibiotic or drug.

One of the primary reasons for this disconnect between the body and everyday technology is that microelectronic devices process information using materials such as silicon, gold, or chemicals, and an energy source that provides electrons; but, free electrons do not exist in biology. As such, scientists encounter a major roadblock in their efforts to bridge the gap between biological systems and microelectronics.

But, engineers at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, along with researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, may have found a loophole.

In biological systems, there exists a small class of molecules capable of shuttling electrons. These molecules, known as “redox” molecules, can transport electrons to any location. But, redox molecules must first undergo a series of chemical reactions – oxidation or reduction reactions – to transport electrons to the intended target.

By engineering cells with synthetic biology components, the research team has experimentally demonstrated a proof-of-concept device enabling robust and reliable information exchanges between electrical and biological (molecular) domains.

“Devices that freely exchange information between the electronic and biological worlds would represent a completely new societal paradigm,” said bioengineering professor William E. Bentley, director of the UMD Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices. “It has only been about 60 years since the implantable pacemaker and defibrillator proved what devices could achieve by electronically stimulating ion currents. Imagine what we could do by transferring all the knowledge contained in our molecular space, by tapping into and controlling molecules such as glucose, hormones, DNA, proteins, or polysaccharides in addition to ions.”

Building on their progress, the research team is now working to develop a novel biological memory device that can be written to and read from via either biological and/or electronic means. Such a device would function like a thumb drive or SD card, using molecular signals to store key information, and would require almost no energy. Inside the body, these devices would serve the same purpose – except, instead of merely storing data, they could be used to control biological behaviors.

“For years, microelectronic circuits have had limited capabilities in maximizing their computing and storage capacities, mainly due to the physical constraints that the building-block inorganic materials – such as silicon – imposed upon them,” said UMD professor Reza Ghodssi, who specializes in electrical and computer engineering. “By exploring and utilizing the world of biology through an integrated and robust interface technology with semiconductor processing, we expect to address those limitations by allowing our researchers and students to design and develop first-of-kind innovative and powerful bioelectronic devices and systems.”

The collaborative research team will work to integrate subsystems and create biohybrid circuits to develop an electronically controlled device for the body that interprets molecular information, computes desired outcomes, and electronically actuates cells to signal and control biological populations.

The hope is that such a system could seek out and destroy a bacterial pathogen by recognizing its secreted signaling molecules and synthesizing a pathogen-specific toxin. In this way, the group will, for the first time, explore electronic control of complex biological behaviors.

This year, the group was awarded a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant through the Semiconductor Synthetic Biology for Information Processing and Storage technologies (SemiSynBio) program. Their earlier related work was published in Nature Communications.

Read about related microbiology research at Maryland.


Spherical nucleic acids are perfect for biomedical applications

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8(Nanowerk News) Northwestern University‘s Chad A.  Mirkin, a world-renowned leader in nanotechnology research and its application,  has invented and developed a powerful material that could revolutionize  biomedicine: spherical nucleic acids (SNAs).

“We now can go after a whole new set of diseases,” Mirkin said.  “Thanks to the Human Genome Project and all of the genomics research over the  last two decades, we have an enormous number of known targets. And we can use  the same tool for each, the spherical nucleic acid. We simply change the  sequence to match the target gene. That’s the power of gene regulation  technology.”       

Mirkin will discuss SNAs and their applications in therapeutics  and diagnostics in a talk titled “Nanostructures in Biology and Medicine” at the  American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in  Boston. His presentation is part of the symposium “Convergence of Physical,  Engineering, and Life Sciences: Next Innovation Economy” to be held from 1:30 to  4:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15.
Potential applications include using SNAs to carry nucleic  acid-based therapeutics to the brain for the treatment of glioblastoma, the most  aggressive form of brain cancer, as well as other neurological disorders such as  Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Mirkin is aggressively pursuing treatments  for such diseases with Alexander H. Stegh, an assistant professor of neurology  at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“These structures are really quite spectacular and incredibly  functional,” Mirkin said. “People don’t typically think about DNA in spherical  form, but this novel arrangement of nucleic acids imparts interesting chemical  and physical properties that are very different from conventional nucleic  acids.”
Spherical nucleic acids consist of densely packed, highly  oriented nucleic acids arranged on the surface of a nanoparticle, typically gold  or silver. The tiny non-toxic balls, each roughly 15 nanometers in diameter, can  do things the familiar but more cumbersome double helix can’t do:
  • SNAs  can naturally enter cells and effect gene knockdown, making SNAs a superior tool  for treating genetic diseases using gene regulation technology.
  • SNAs  can easily cross formidable barriers in the human body, including the  blood-brain barrier and the layers that make up skin.
  • SNAs  don’t elicit an immune response, and they resist degradation, resulting in  longer lifetimes in the body.
“The field of medicine needs new constructs and strategies for  treating disease,” Mirkin said. “Many of the ways we treat disease are based on  old methods and materials. Nanotechnology offers the ability to rapidly create  new structures with properties that are very different from conventional forms  of matter.”
Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the  Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of medicine, chemical and  biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and  engineering. He is director of Northwestern’s International Institute for  Nanotechnology (IIN).
Last year, Mirkin and Amy S. Paller, M.D., chair of dermatology  and professor of pediatrics at Feinberg, were the first to demonstrate the use  of commercial moisturizers to deliver gene regulation technology for skin cancer  therapy. The drug, consisting of SNAs, penetrated the skin’s layers and  selectively targeted disease-causing genes while sparing normal genes.
“We now can go after a whole new set of diseases,” Mirkin said.  “Thanks to the Human Genome Project and all of the genomics research over the  last two decades, we have an enormous number of known targets. And we can use  the same tool for each, the spherical nucleic acid. We simply change the  sequence to match the target gene. That’s the power of gene regulation  technology.”
Symposium information:
“Convergence of Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences: Next  Innovation Economy”; 1:30-4:30 p.m. Friday, February 15; Room 202 (Hynes  Convention Center)
Source: Northwestern University

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Scientists have published the most detailed analysis to date of the human genome

Scientists have discovered a far larger chunk of our genetic code is biologically active than previously thought. The researchers hope the findings will lead to a deeper understanding of numerous diseases, which could lead to better treatments.

More than 400 scientists in 32 laboratories in the UK, US, Spain, Singapore and Japan were involved.  Their findings are published in 30 connected open-access papers appearing in three journals, Nature, Genome Biology and Genome Research.

The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (Encode) was launched in 2003 with the goal of identifying all the functional elements within the human genome.

A pilot project looking at 1% of the genome was published in 2007.

Now the Encode project has analysed all three billion pairs of genetic code that make up our DNA. They have found 80% of our genome is performing a specific function. Up to now, most attention has been focused on protein-coding genes, which make up just 2% of the genome.


Junk DNA

Genes are small sections of DNA that contain instructions for which chemicals – proteins – they should produce.

The Encode team analysed the vast area of the genome sometimes called “junk DNA” because it seemed to have little function and was poorly understood.

Dr Ewan Birney, of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, who led the analysis, told me: “The term junk DNA must now be junked.

“It’s clear from this research that a far bigger part of the genome is biologically active than was previously thought.”


The scientists also identified four million gene “switches”. These are sections of DNA that control when genes are switched on or off in cells.

They said the switches were often a long way along the genome from the gene they controlled.

Dr Birney said: “This will help in our understanding of human biology. Many of the switches we have identified are linked to changes in risk for conditions from heart disease to diabetes or mental illness. This will give researchers a whole new world to explore and ultimately, it’s hoped, will lead to new treatments.”

Scientists acknowledge that it is likely to be many years before patients see tangible benefits from the project.

But another of the Encode team, Dr Ian Dunham said the data could ultimately be of help in every area of disease research.

“Encode gives us a set of very valuable leads to follow to discover key mechanisms at play in health and disease. Those can be exploited to create entirely new medicines, or to repurpose existing treatments.”

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute director Prof Mike Stratton said the results were “remarkable” and would “stand as a foundation stone for human biology for many years”.

He added: “The Encode project will change the way many researchers conduct their science and give those who seek to understand disease a much better grasp of where genetic variation can affect our genome for ill.”

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by BBC News, Fergus Walsh.