New Worlds: Nano lab on a chip may make guinea pigs obsolete

Also in this issue: Using cellphones to track down a late bus, Technion tries to change male-female balance in its programs.

April 4, 2009 21:28

Animals have served as "guinea pigs" for centuries to determine whether a certain drug or chemical would be dangerous to humans. To monitor poison gases in coal mines, a caged canary was used to tell miners whether there was any danger, as the poor bird would die with the first exposure. Scientists more recently have used fish to test for contaminants in water. But even with modern advances, it can take days to detect a fatal chemical or organism. That is - until now. Working in the miniaturized world of nanotechnology, Tel Aviv University researchers have made a major - and humane - leap forward in the detection of pollutants without using animals. A team led by Prof. Yosi Shacham-Diamand, vice-dean of TAU's engineering faculty, has developed a nano-sized lab complete with a microscopic workbench to measure water quality in real time. Their "lab on a chip" is regarded as a breakthrough in the effort to keep water safe from pollution and bioterrorist threats. "We've developed a platform essentially a microsized 'lab' - employing genetically engineered bacteria that light up when presented with a stressor in water," says Shacham-Diamand. Equipment on the little chip can work to help detect very tiny light levels produced by the bacteria. Instead of using animals to help detect threats to a water supply, he says "Our system is based on a plastic chip that is more humane, faster, more sensitive and much cheaper. Basically, ours is an innovative advance in the 'lab on a chip' system," he adds. "It's an ingenious nanoscale platform designed to get information out of biological events. Our solution can monitor water with unprecedented levels of accuracy. But it can also be used for unlimited purposes, such as investigating stem-cell therapies or treating cancer." According to published literature, TAU is one of the top five universities in the world pioneering the "lab on a chip" concept. The nanolabs can be used to evaluate several biological processes with practical applications, such as microbes in water, stem cells or breast cancer development. Shacham-Diamand's active lab group publishes a major paper monthly, most recently inNano Letters. TRACKING DOWN THE BUS A doctoral student at the University of Washington who has spent too many cold, rainy nights waiting at bus stops decided to take action; he and a fellow student designed a way to use cellphones to track a bus that has not yet arrived. Brian Ferris, who is studying computer sciences and describes himself as "an avid bus rider," notes that "if you ride buses enough, you spend a lot of time waiting because even on the best of days they can run late." He and Kari Watkins, who is studying civil and environmental engineering, invented OneBusAway, which allows bus-riders to use a cell phone, iPhone or computer to keep tabs on their bus. OneBusAway has processed 20,000 automated phone calls since last June, and the Web site gets an average of 1,000 hits a day. Users have found out about the tool on blogs, from stickers posted at a few UW campus bus stops and by word of mouth. Users dial OneBusAway in Seattle from any phone; the call is answered by a robot-like voice that asks for the number of their bus stop or helps them look it up. A computer checks a database of current bus locations, and the voice announces how long until your bus arrives. Most bus stops in the area have a timetable of when the bus is supposed to come, and digital screens at some central hubs show projected arrivals. But most lonely bus riders waiting by the curb, scanning the horizon for any sign of a bus, have no idea how long they have to wait. Removing uncertainty has been shown to cut frustration dramatically, says Watkins, who met Ferris through a transit blog and combined their expertise to create OneBusAway, though neither receives academic credit for the work. "When people have to wait, they think that twice as much time is passing. So if you're standing at a bus stop for five minutes, you perceive that time to be 10," Watkins suggests. Knowing the wait time changes the situation. "If I know ahead of time, I can grab that cup of coffee and be back out in time to catch my bus." Ferris has invested about $70 of his own money to buy the domain name and professional voice-generating software. The phone number connects to a free service that relays phone calls over the Internet. "I'm running this on a shoestring and a prayer. I've had people offer to buy me a beer, anything they can do to help," Ferris says. "Now that it's becoming popular, a lot of people are becoming dependent on it." Eventually they envision offering a collection of bus-riding tools that any transit agency could connect to its database in order to encourage more people to use public transit. Someday all buses may be equipped with GPS antennas that would allow even better tracking. FEMALE VISIT Some 300 outstanding high school girls from around the country recently visited the electronic engineering faculty of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. All of them are studying at a level of five units of mathematics. The aim of the all-day tour was to get teenage girls interested in a field in which males are the majority. Prof. Paul Feigin, the senior deputy to the Technion president, said there was no reason for many more men than women at the institute, just as there was none for this in Israel Air Force pilot courses. Faculty dean Prof. Israel Tzidon said the school is one of the leading electronic engineering, computer and communications facilities in the world, and the faculty is regarded at the best in several fields. Prof. Yonina Eldar, who organized the visit, told the girls about the many possibilities for work in electronic engineering, and the types of jobs that Technion graduates have found. The guests toured labs for computerized vision, image processing, optics, robotics and computers, and met female students. When they asked female students how male students and lecturers treated them, they were told: "Better than they treat the men."

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