Can a single-celled organism hold a key to developing self-healing materials and machines? A Stanford University mechanical engineer is exploring this intriguing possibility, using a new tool that also has applications in many kinds of cellular research.
Sindy Tang, an assistant professor, discovered that trumpet-shaped Stentor coeruleus can regenerate into two cells when divided in half. She calls self-healing as “one of the Holy Grails of engineering…A single cell is analogous to a spacecraft — both have to figure out how to repair damage without anyone’s help from the outside.”
Before Tang and her team could study S. coeruleus’ regenerative powers, they needed a tool to slice the cells in half. Researchers working on the organism usually cut cells by hand under a microscope, using a glass needle. This method is 100-years old and difficult to execute to obtain two identical cell halves. Lucas Blaugh, a Tang graduate student, estimated that a researcher would take five hours to cut 100 cells. When the 100th cell was cut, the first one cut would be healing.
Microfluidics is one of Tang’s team’s specialties, and they used their expertise to design a better slicing mechanism — a cellular guillotine that halves cells in an assembly-line process. The device pushes a row of cells into a tight channel and onto a pointed knife blade. The guillotine slices S. coeruleus into perfect halves with similar survival rates to those of the laborious hand-cutting method.
The team joined eight identical parallel channels to increase their cutting rate. They produced 150 cells in two minutes, a whopping increase over the hand method.
Tang expects the guillotine will be useful for many scientists who study self-healing, whether with a goal of creating self-healing materials or treating diseases like cancer. Her team reports its results in the June 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.