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Next Generation: Sneaking into a Cell

A nanoscale device measures electrical signals inside cells without causing damage.

A false color SEM image of the BIT-FET overlaid with an image of a cluster of cardiomyocyte cells, illustrating how intracellular action potentials are recorded by the device

THE DEVICE: It is not easy to record the electrical signals that pass fleetingly through neurons and cardiomyocytes. But with a novel nanoscale device developed by Charles Lieber and colleagues at Harvard University, scientists can record these action potentials without damaging cells and even probe sub-cellular structures like dendrites, according to a report published last month (December 18) in Nature Nanotechnology.

The branched intracellular nanotube field-effect transistor, or BIT-FET, joins a nanowire and a nanotube into a slim T-shaped structure that can be inserted into a cell up to five times in the same place without disrupting the action potential or damaging the cell. The tiny hollow nanotube, 50-100 nanometers wide, penetrates the cell, sucking up a bit of the cytosol as it enters. This cytosol comes in contact with the nanowire outside the cell, and when a voltage is applied to the nanowire, it operates as a transistor and detects the electrical signals passing through the cell.

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