Cell-based sensors on a chip, which could speed up and improve the detection of everything from explosive materials to biological pathogens, are closer to reality, thanks to researchers at the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering. The researchers - Benjamin Shapiro, Pamela Abshire, and Elisabeth Smela - are working on sensors that take advantage of the sensory capabilities of biological cells.

The Clark School researchers are learning how to incorporate real cells into tiny micro-systems to detect chemical and biological pathogens. Abshire is building circuits that can interact with the cells and transmit alerts about their condition. Shapiro and Smela are working on micro-fluidics technology to get the cells where they need to be on the chip, and to keep them alive and healthy once they're in position. Smela is also developing packages that incorporate the kind of wet, life-sustaining environments the biological components need, while keeping the sensor's sensitive electronic parts dry.

Scientists hope to make cell-based sensors on a chip a reality, because today's biochemical detectors are slow and produce an unacceptable number of false readings. Biochemical detectors often cannot distinguish subtle differences between deadly pathogens and harmless substances, and cannot fully monitor or interpret the different ways these substances interact with biological systems.

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