A digital microarray from the lab of Ken Shepard, a professor of electrical engineering, can measure individual DNA molecules, which are shown in this image. The new technology dramatically improves and simplifies genetic analysis.

Electrical engineer develops new nanoscale tools to aid discoveries in the life sciences

January 30, 2013 by Adam Piore

(Phys.org)—Ken Shepard, a professor of electrical engineering, believes there is nowhere else in the world where he could do what he does. “Imagine a convergence of semiconductor technology and biotechnology. There is no company out there that has expertise in both,” he says. “It takes a university to figure out how to put those two pieces together and create new technologies from this synergy.”

In particular, his research focuses on finding new applications for integrated circuits, or chips. Semiconductor research has, he says, “focused on using integrated circuits for building computers and communication devices like cell phones, but what we haven’t really explored is how we can use them for biotechnology.”

Shepard, who before joining Columbia in 1997 worked for IBM designing microprocessors, uses electronics to interface to biological systems, from single molecules to cells. The most common interfaces to living systems use light as an intermediary, relying on microscopes to observe specialized molecules that fluoresce in the presence of light and serve as labels.

“You can see it, but you can barely see it,” Shepard says of using a microscope. “You have to collect data for a very long period of time to get a signal, which limits what you can do.”

Instead, Shepard and his team directly interface to biomolecular and biological systems using a number of nanoscale objects. This includes interfacing nanoscale electrodes, nanopores (nanoscale holes in a solid state membrane) and carbon nanotube transistors to silicon integrated circuits. “At the level of single molecules,” he says, “the result is signal levels that can be more than a million times higher than using optical techniques.”

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