First Nano-Sized Molecular Device Capable of Sensing and Altering Cells’ Bioelectric Fields

Nano-Sized Molecular Electric Field Sensor Device

A conceptual drawing of the new molecular device. For experiments outside the human body (in vitro), the device would nest on the cell’s membrane: a “reporter” molecule would detect the local electric field when activated by red light; an attached “modifier” molecule would alter that electric field when activated by blue light. Credit: Katya Kadyshevskaya at USC

Using Only 100 Atoms, Electric Fields Can Be Detected and Changed

USC Viterbi researchers create first nano-sized, molecular device potentially capable of sensing and altering the cell’s electric field, ushering in new possibilities for basic research.

Bioelectricity, the current that flows between our cells, is fundamental to our ability to think and talk and walk.

In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that recording and altering the bioelectric fields of cells and tissue plays a vital role in wound healing and even potentially fighting diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Now, for the first time, researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have created a molecular device that can do both: record and manipulate its surrounding bioelectric field.

The triangle-shaped device is made of two small, connected molecules — much smaller than a virus and similar to the diameter of a DNA strand.

It’s a completely new material for “reading and writing” the electric field without damaging nearby cells and tissue. Each of the two molecules, linked by a short chain of carbon atoms, has its own separate function: one molecule acts as a “sensor” or detector that measures the local electric field when triggered by red light; a second molecule, “the modifier,” generates additional electrons when exposed to blue light. Notably, each function is independently controlled by different wavelengths of light.

Though not intended for use in humans, the organic device would sit partially inside and outside the cell’s membrane for in vitro experiments.

The work, published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C, was spearheaded by USC Viterbi professors Andrea Armani and Rehan Kapadia. The lead authors include Yingmu Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Mork Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science; and Jinghan He, a Ph.D. candidate in the USC Department of Chemistry. Co-authors include Patrick Saris, USC Viterbi postdoctoral researcher; and Hyun Uk Chae and Subrata Das, Ph.D. candidates in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The Armani Lab was responsible for creating the new organic molecule, while the Kapadia Lab played a key role in testing how efficiently the “modifier” was generating electricity when activated by light.

Because the reporter molecule can insert into tissue, it has the possibility to measure electric fields non-invasively, providing ultra-fast, 3-D, high resolution imaging of neural networks. This can play a crucial role for other researchers testing the effects of new drugs, or changes in conditions like pressure and oxygen. Unlike many other previous tools, it will do so without damaging healthy cells or tissue or requiring genetic manipulation of the system.

“This multi-functional imaging agent is already compatible with existing microscopes,” said Armani, the Ray Irani Chair in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, “so it will enable a wide range of researchers — from biology to neuroscience to physiology — to ask new types of questions about biological systems and their response to different stimuli: drugs and environmental factors. The new frontiers are endless.”

In addition, the modifier molecule, by altering the nearby electric field of cells, can precisely damage a single point, allowing future researchers to determine the cascading effects throughout, say, an entire network of brain cells or heart cells.

“If you have a wireless network in your home, what happens if one of those nodes becomes unstable?” said Armani. “How does that affect all the other nodes in your house? Do they still work? Once we understand a biological system like the human body, we can better predict its response – or alter its response, such as making better drugs to prevent undesirable behaviors.”

“The key thing,” said Kapadia, the Colleen and Roberto Padovani Early Career Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering, “is that we can use this to both interrogate as well as manipulate. And we can do both things at very high resolutions – both spatially and temporally.”

Key to the new organic device was the ability to eliminate “crosstalk.” How to get these two very different molecules to join together and not interfere with each other in the manner of two scrambled radio signals? In the beginning, notes Armani, “it wasn’t entirely obvious that it was even going to be possible.” The solution? Separate both by a long alkyl chain, which does not affect the photophysical abilities of each.

Next steps for this multi-functional new molecule include testing on neurons and even bacteria. USC scientist Moh El-Naggar, a collaborator, has previously demonstrated the ability of microbial communities to transfer electrons between cells and across relatively long distances — with huge implications for harvesting biofuels.

Reference: “Multifunctional photoresponsive organic molecule for electric field sensing and modulation” by Yingmu Zhang, Jinghan He, Patrick J. G. Saris, Hyun Uk Chae, Subrata Das, Rehan Kapadia and Andrea M. Armani, 8 December 2021, Journal of Materials Chemistry C.
DOI: 10.1039/D1TC05065F

This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Office.

5 Comments on "First Nano-Sized Molecular Device Capable of Sensing and Altering Cells’ Bioelectric Fields"

  1. Babu G. Ranganathan | January 13, 2022 at 9:18 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE CELL could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    CATCH-22 FOR EVOLUTIONARY ORIGIN OF LIFE

    Just having the right materials, elements, and conditions do not mean that life can arise by chance.

    Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953 showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    What many don’t realize is that although oxygen is necessary for life’s processes, the presence of oxygen would prevent life from coming into being. This is because oxygen is destructive unless there are mechanisms already in place to control, direct, and regulate it, such as what we find in already existing forms of life.

    RNA and DNA are made up of molecules (nucleic acids) that must also exist in the right sequence. Furthermore, none of these sequential molecules, proteins, DNA, RNA, can function outside of a complete and living cell and all are mutually dependent on one another. One cannot come into existence without the other.

    Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The probability of just a single average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.

    The cell could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Alien beings, even if they do exist, could not have evolved. How could they have survived millions of years while the very biological structures, organs, and systems necessary for their survival were supposedly still evolving? Life, in any form (even a single-celled organism), must be complete, fully integrated, and fully-functioning from the very start to be fit for survival.

    Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the code and mechanisms exist to direct the formation of more cells. The problem for evolutionists is how did the cell originate when there were no directing code and mechanisms in nature. Natural laws may explain how a cell or airplane works but mere undirected natural laws could not have brought about the existence of either.

    What about synthetic life? Scientists didn’t create life itself. What they’ve done is, by using intelligent design and sophisticated technology, scientists built DNA code from scratch and then they implanted that man-made DNA into an already existing living cell and alter that cell. That’s what synthetic life is.

    Through genetic engineering scientists have been able to produce new forms of life by altering already existing forms of life, but they have never created life from non-living matter. Even if they do, it won’t be by chance but by intelligent design. That doesn’t help the theory of evolution.

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t create or produce anything. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. If a variation occurs that helps a species survive, that survival is called ” natural selection.” It’s a passive process. There’s no conscious selection by nature, and natural selection only operates in nature once there is life and reproduction and not before, so it would not be of assistance to the origin of life.

    Science can’t prove we’re here by chance or design. Neither was observed. Both are positions of faith. The issue is which faith is best supported by science. Let the scientific arguments of both sides be presented.

    Read my popular Internet articles:

    THE NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH

    Visit my Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    • Thank you for posting this Babu! You pointed out two things that are quite logical & in my opinion indisputable:

      “THE CELL could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane.”

      “Life, in any form (even a single-celled organism), must be complete, fully integrated, and fully-functioning from the very start to be fit for survival.”

      It is utter madness to think that trillions of cells can just magically assemble into a human being or any other living thing. Life needs a life giver, life cannot begin or evolve from non-living matter.

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  3. Dennis L. Talley, P.E., Retired Chemical Engineer | January 14, 2022 at 9:43 am | Reply

    I pray for the soon success of applying this technology to cure all cancers & heal all diseases. What a wonderful outcome this would be. This article & previous comments are very positively reinforcing.

  4. “It is utter madness to think that trillions of cells can just magically assemble into a human being or any other living thing. Life needs a life giver, life cannot begin or evolve from non-living matter.”
    Pure Contra, Babu. Tell that to God or better yet the Dogmatic sects who all preach the first sentence yet live the second. All life around you and the thousands of millions of years worth of bones turned dust from the countless eons of total extinction followed by spontaneous eruption of unrelated life to their own total extermination to every unforeseen complication after adds up to all extant biology in its first to current forms;it proves everything you wrote as wrong.
    Why? Bc something IMPOSSIBLE HAS NEVER BEEN CREATED. To do so would be a paradox.
    BTW there’s just SO MUCH EVIDENCE OF EVOLUTIONARY PATHS THAT TAKE THINGS TO THE SAME PLACE. As for no life from the non-living? Its called light brah. Humans cannot live without non-living materials to fuel their cells. We do not synthesize our building blocks.
    Meanwhile:There is bacteria that feeds off toxic manganese ore.
    By pure chance that can be proven: Diatom fossils feed the trees of the Amazon from across the ocean by way of winds sweeping uninhabitable dunes of Africa only because THE RANDOM CHANCE THAT THE PLACEMENT OF DIATOM GOES SO DEEP THAT IT IN FACT CARVED THE TOPOGRAPHY TO MAKE IT SO BUT ONLY AFTER THEY DIED!(you can’t design in death)
    THOSE DIATOM BTW? SPONTANEOUSLY,evolve millions of years after the first dinosaur. It goes giant reptilian birds then light devouring crystalline algae-animal chimera;no relation.
    So you can go on and on about no proof of random life but you are wrong. Yup the elements are brutal.
    BUT The probability of something happening that has already happened is 1. So what are the chances of life? 1. Evolution? 1.
    AGAIN Why do we know? Bc death. Life can’t keep up with life. Life uses so much material to survive that it would have to be cannibalistic without pathogens and predators and then it would come to the same end without the long drawn out introduction of NEW life; thus why life is diverse.
    The new new is all around you.
    You can’t NOT have Evolution or random recombination in a finite world and have what you describe.
    I mean from tardigrades to prions, this world creates creatures and creates that which creatures are created from while never being creatures themselves wholly independently and totally out of what you call nothing so much and so often in radically spontaneous ways that the possibility of designing such ways to recreate the patterns to the random randomness is an apex impossibility. You correctly stated it has never been done by man.
    The only thing impossible on Earth is the impossible non-existence of proteins in our world. You can call that God but it doesn’t needed it. Even if it does have one.
    FYI its patience 😌that the cell evolved to have that makes the procreation work no almighty dictation necessary.
    You haven’t equated patience into your sum of all things.

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