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December 7, 2017

Nano fiber feels forces and hears sounds cells make

An artist’s illustration of nano optical fibers detecting femtonewton-scale forces produced by swimming bacteria.

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Engineers at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego), have developed a miniature device that’s sensitive enough to feel the forces generated by swimming bacteria and hear the beating of heart muscle cells.

The device, a nano-sized optical fiber about 100 times thinner than a human hair, can detect forces down to 160 femtonewtons -- about 10 trillion times smaller than a newton -- when placed in a solution containing live Helicobacter pylori bacteria (swimming bacteria found in the gut).

In cultures of beating heart muscle cells from mice, the nano fiber can detect sounds down to -30 decibels, a level that’s 1,000 times below the limit of the human ear.

"This work could open up new doors to track small interactions and changes that couldn’t be tracked before," said Donald Sirbuly, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the study.

Sirbuly envisions possible applications for the device include detecting the presence and activity of a single bacterium; monitoring bonds forming and breaking; sensing changes in a cell’s mechanical behavior that might signal it becoming cancerous or being attacked by a virus; or a mini stethoscope to monitor cellular acoustics in vivo.

The research was supported in party by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant ECCS 11-50952).

To learn more about this research, see the <> news story Nano fiber feels forces and hears sounds made by cells. (Date image taken: 2012-2013; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Dec. 7, 2017)

Credit: Rhett S. Miller/UC Regents

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