Microchips on a circuit board

Chips with everything

Lab-on-a-chip technology could reduce a room full of equipment to the size of a microchip

By making everything smaller, more and more things can be crammed into minute devices. Scientists have a vision of a miniature ‘laboratory on a chip’ that could carry out many experiments at the same time.

One of the products of the miniaturisation trend has been the development of lab-on-a-chip tools: plastic, glass and silicon chips containing complex arrays of channels, pumps and valves that can move minute amounts of fluid and suspended solids.

These highly complex tools incorporate chemistry and signalling in a tiny space. Their uses include the separation and analysis of complex mixtures of molecules, miniaturised diagnostic or drug discovery tools, and high-throughput tools for studying gene or protein activity in cells or tissues.

The technological challenges are very great. With very small diameter tubes, for example, water does not flow freely, so moving substances around is very difficult; some groups are experimenting with active transport systems based on the molecules that transport material around cells.

Researchers in America have developed a lab-on-a-chip using nanotechnologies called the Domino. Incorporated into a functional component, this toaster-sized box can carry out genetic tests that usually require a whole lab of equipment. Not only this, it can do it all in a fraction of the time. The Domino can determine whether a patient is resistant to cancer drugs or has infections like malaria.

Examples such as the Domino show the great potential of lab-on-a-chip technology. They could make cutting-edge healthcare quick, accessible and affordable.

Lead image:

Jim/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Medicine, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development