How a nanoneedle can send quantum dots into cells

Researchers can shoot quantum dots into cells. It's like a flu shot to the cell.

What happens inside of cells is still a bit of a mystery. Typically, researchers use proteins and dyes to spy on the activities going on inside of the cell nucleus.

But the molecules are pretty large, sensitive to light, and hard to see with common microscope techniques. Ultimately, getting a better look at what happens inside of cells will help scientists uncover the secrets of DNA and the underlying factors involved in genetics.

Recently, I wrote about a scientist who built a cyborg cell to get around this problem. The Harvard University scientist created a nanoprobe that could sneak a peak at the inner workings of a cell.

Now, University of Illinois researchers apparently have another way of doing this. They want to prick a cell with a needle and send in quantum dots to see what is up.

When an electrical charge is applied, the nanoneedles send quantum dots into a cell nucleus. By tracking the quantum dots, researchers can follow what is going on inside of the nucleus. Quantum dots — a type of semiconductor-based nanoparticles — are small, easily identified, and are not sensitive to light.

"This technique allows us to physically access the internal environment inside a cell," Illinois engineer Min-Feng Yu said in a statement. "It's almost like a surgical tool that allows us to 'operate' inside the cell."

Getting the quantum dots into the cell wasn't easy. The trick was coating the nanotube with a layer of gold. When the time was right, the nanotube released quantum dots into the cell. It's like a flu shot to the cell.

The tool can look at chemical, electrical, and mechanical processes that occur in the cell. Soon, the researchers will find out if the needle can be used to inject DNA fragments and enzymes into the cell as well.

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Photo: Min-Feng Yu

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