Genetically engineering any organism requires first getting its cells to take in foreign DNA. To do this, scientists often perform a process called electroporation, in which they expose cells to an electric field. If that field is at just the right magnitude, it will open up pores within the cell membrane, through which DNA can flow. But it can take scientists months or even years to figure out the exact electric field conditions to reversibly unlock a membrane’s pores. Now, a new microfluidic device developed by MIT engineers may help scientists quickly home in on the electric field “sweet spot” — the range of electric potentials that will harmlessly and temporarily open up membrane pores to let DNA into the cell. In principle, the simple device could be used on any microorganism or cell, significantly speeding up the first step in genetic engineering. “We’re trying to reduce the amount of experimentation that’s needed,” says Cullen Buie, Ph.D., the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “Our big vision for this device and future iterations is to be able to take a process that usually takes months or years, and do it in a day or two.” A new article by Dr. Buie and his colleagues, including postdoc Paulo Garcia, Ph.D., graduate student Zhifei Ge, and lecturer Jeffrey Moran, Ph.D., was published online on February 19, 2016 in the journal Scientific Reports. The open-access article is titled “Microfluidic Screening of Electric Fields for Electroporation.” Currently, scientists can order various electroporation systems — simple instruments that come with a set of instructions for penetrating an organism’s cell membranes.
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