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Hybrid biochip fosters faster DNA analysis

August 17, 2010

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SFU chemist Paul Li, who pioneered lab-on-a-biochip technology six years ago, has struck gold in the research world again—this time literally.

Li has combined nanometer-scale particles of gold with two powerful molecular biology tools on a hybrid biochip that permits DNA analysis at room temperature, which is 10 times faster than previously required at higher temperatures.

Li sped up gene identification by fusing a microscope-slide-like microarray that can identify known DNA gene sequences with a multi-channel microfluidic device that can quickly analyze small amounts of liquid.

The transparent DVD-like hybrid biochip is roughly the same thickness as a Canadian dollar coin.

But what really makes the invention a biomedical gold mine is the addition of gold nanoparticles to the liquid being analyzed on the biochip. Mixed with DNA, the gold spheres act as mini magnets that adhere to each of the DNA’s twin strands.

When the DNA is heated, the two strands separate and the gold nanoparticles keep them apart. That enables scientists to probe each strand with other pieces of DNA that are engineered to recognize known gene sequences.

“The key benefit of the gold is that it allows us to do our analysis at room temperature (25 C),” explains Li.

“That is half the conventional temperature needed, which requires the use of an apparatus that tolerates high temperatures. More importantly, DNA sequences with slight differences are now differentiated by the nanoparticle but not by the high temperature.”

Li’s invention promises to revolutionize researchers’ ability to probe biological samples and detect genes for forensic analysis, disease detection and drug development.

In 2004, Li produced the world’s first lab-on-a-biochip. Only half the size of a credit card, the tiny lab is equipped with channels for separation and analysis of individual cells and a chamber on which to test compounds.

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