A group of Swiss researchers, working at the Lausanne-based Federal Institute of Technology(EPFL), has developed a nanoscale motion sensor that is capable of detecting even the tiniest movements exhibited by microscopic organisms. According to the team, the technology can be used to locate and identify extra-terrestrial life forms. Up until now, space probes, such as Curiosity and Philae, have relied on chemical detection systems to gather important information regarding a planet’s surface environment. However with the help of this incredibly sensitive ‘life detector’, scientists can now study and measure the habitability of a planetary body, based on the vibrations caused by its microscopic inhabitants.
The research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS) journal, outlines the basic design of the nanosensor. Central to the device is a micro-sized cantilever, similar to the ones used for constructing buildings and bridges. The cantilever, in this case, consists of a narrow beam that remains anchored at one end, while the other end is free to move about. The surface of the contraption can receive as many as 500 bacteria, which are then studied for any sign of motion. Speaking about the motion detecting device, Giovanni Longo, the paper’s chief author, said:
The nanomotion detector allows [for the] studying [of] life from a new perspective: life is movement… This means that the nanomotion detector can detect any small movement of living systems and deliver a complementary point of view in the search for life.
Despite its incredibly simple design, the device is sensitive to even the slightest motions associated with the micro-organisms. What is more, it’s based on a technology that is currently being used in the atomic force microscope. Also known as the scanning force microscope, the machine uses a cantilever, fixed at one end to the body of the microscope, to record the images of the atoms present on a particular subject. Following this, the movements of the cantilever are measured by means of a laser.
The nanoscopic motion sensor, designed by the EPFL scientists, possesses a similar apparatus of sorts. When the test objects, which in this case include microscopic organisms like bacteria, are placed on its movable end, even the smallest vibrations, occurring as a result of the ongoing metabolic processes, will shake the cantilever. The motions will then get detected and recorded by a laser. The team, made up of Giovanni Dietler, Sandor Kasas and Giovanni Longo, has already tested the sensor’s effectiveness in discerning movements associated with yeast, bacteria as well as human and mouse cells.
Additionally, the nanosensor is capable of locating and identifying living organisms from water and soil samples. The researchers noted that during the testing process, the device ceased to produce any reading once the bacteria or other organisms, present on its cantilever, were killed by means of a drug. In the future, therefore, the technology can very well be used for drug development. For instance, the contraption can be used to gauge the effectiveness of antibiotics or even anticancer drugs in killing live cancer cells or bacteria, placed on its cantilever. Dietler stated:
The system has the benefit of being completely chemistry-free. That means that it can be used anywhere – in drug testing or even in the search for extraterrestrial life… This is really the next step.
The EPFL team is currently in the process of contacting the European Space Agency(ESA) and NASA, to check if they would be interested.
To learn more about the research, head over to EPFL’s official website.