Single Cell Technology

A new nanobiopsy technique helps scientists peer into cells.

With a tip so tiny it can’t be seen with a microscope, a pipette engineered by UC Santa Cruz researchers is small enough to pierce a single living cell without causing any damage. The computer-automated technique, developed in Nader Pourmand’s multidisciplinary laboratory, Biosensors and Bioelectronics, was described in ACS Nano.

“We can now go in and sip a little content from a cell to see what it is doing, while it is doing it,” said Pourmand, professor of biomolecular engineering in the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering.

This nanopipetting method makes it possible for researchers to regularly monitor individual cells. Measuring minuscule changes in cell contents, such as sugar levels, can mark a cell’s metabolic march from healthy to abnormal. The scientists also showed they can extract single organelles and measure RNa or DNa samples to discover which genes are being turned on or off at any given time.

“Until now we’ve been looking at endpoints of disease, but there’s a lot we’re missing in between,” Pourmand said. “This technique can help us get those details.”

For this work, Pourmand’s team became a finalist in “Follow That Cell,” a national NIH competition for novel solutions to study single cell dynamics.