UCLA physicists create nanosensor for diseases, bioweapons

Physicists at UCLA recently created a nanoscale sensor that uses a single molecule that could detect genetic diseases and biological weapons and be used in many other applications for medicine, biotechnology and other fields.

Giovanni Zocchi, the leader of the research project, and his team created the sensor, which is less than 20 nanometers long and more than 1,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Zocchi said the single molecule sensor could demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity and lend itself to many applications, Azonano.com reports.

"An efficient high-sensitivity method would be an important tool for testing how cells react to a new drug," Zocchi said, according to Azonano.com. "The nano sensor could also be a useful tool for stem cell research. A nano sensor based on this technology could potentially detect minute traces of biological weapons, based on a characteristic genetic signature."

The nanoscale sensor uses a single molecule to recognize the presence of a particular short sequence in a mixture of RNA or DNA molecules. Zocchi equated the process to finding a needle in a haystack.

"Traditional assays use an averaged procedure that detects a minimum amount of molecules, but our method can detect a single one," Zocchi said, according to Azonano.com. "When a target molecule binds to the probe in the sensor, the probe molecule changes shape, and in its new conformation, pulls on the sensor. It is remarkable that a single molecule can actually move the sensor, because the relative sizes are comparable to one person trying to move a mountain, but mass is of no consequence at these miniscule scales."

Zocchi said that his team planned to first use the nanoscale sensor for experimental leukemia research, Azonano.com reports.