Public Release: 

'Critters On A Chip' Combines Electronics With Living Sensors

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's "Critters on a Chip" consists of living sensors, such as bioluminescent bacteria, placed on a standard integrated circuit. Mike Simpson, a developer of the chip, expects it to have several applications, including in environmental monitoring, medical diagnositics and industrial process monitoring. The bioluminescent bioreporter chip (magnified on the monitor in the background) emits a visible blue-green light when it detects certain pollutants and explosives. It can also be configured to transmit a signal to a receiver linked to a computer. (Photo by Tom Cerniglio)

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OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 18, 1997 -- Integrated circuits are literally taking on a new life at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), where researchers have developed a half living, half silicon chip to detect pollutants, explosives and a number of chemicals in soil and water.

The bioluminescent bioreporter integrated circuit, dubbed "Critters on a Chip," consists of living sensors -- such as bioluminescent bacteria -- placed on a standard integrated circuit, or chip. In the presence of targeted substances, including pollutants and explosives, the bacteria emit a visible blue-green light.

"Because the integrated circuits are small, low-power, rugged and can be made wireless, they can be placed in areas other devices cannot," said ORNL's Mike Simpson, developer of the hybrid chip. "The bioreporters can be engineered to be very specific and sensitive to a particular substance."

Simpson, a member of the lab's Instrumentation and Controls Division, expects the chip to cost less than $1 apiece to mass produce. Other potential uses for the chip, which can be designed to transmit a signal to a receiver that's connected to a computer, include in medical diagnostics and industrial process monitors.

The critters chip is small -- 2 millimeter x 2 millimeter and about a half millimeter thick -- and can be produced using standard integrated circuit manufacturing processes. Simpson and Gary Sayler, who heads the University of Tennessee's Center for Environmental Biotechnology, recently produced a prototype using Pseudomonas fluorescens HK44, a genetically engineered microorganism that produces light as it breaks down hazardous waste.

Sayler and Simpson exposed the prototype chip to naphthalene, a component of crude petroleum, and were able to clearly detect a signal, demonstrating that the critters on a chip was working.

Because the chip is small, inexpensive and provides information quickly, monitoring of remediation at contaminated sites could be done more accurately and more efficiently. The critters on a chip could replace today's bulky, expensive and complicated optical detection systems that use photo multipliers and optical fibers buried in the ground. It could also allow for more extensive monitoring of a remediation site with no increase in cost, Simpson said.

"This new development using an integrated chip-based approach with living organisms could dramatically advance the ability to sense a variety of chemical agents in the environment, such as chemical warfare agents or other toxic substances and things like environmental estrogens that could have detrimental effects on living systems," Sayler said.

"If it is indeed possible to manufacture these part electronic and part biological systems as a small, inexpensive chip, it would dramatically improve the ability to monitor many different types of environments."

Critters on a chip evolved from a Laboratory Directed Research and Development-funded project that focused on specialized electro-optical detectors using integrated circuits.

Other members of the research team were Tuan Vo-Dinh of the Life Sciences Division and Gerald Jellison of the Solid State Division.


ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.

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