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Science Saturday ‘Lab on a chip’ to track changes in single bacteria cells

Lab technician holding slide of E.coli bacteria

The lab on a chip can track the precise growth and behaviour of many generations of individual E. coli bacteria.


Swiss and German researchers have set up a tiny laboratory with automatic analysis software to track how single bacterial cells respond to dynamically controlled environmental changes.  

Hardly bigger than a matchbox, this is a miniature laboratory on a chip, report the scientists from Basel University’s Biozentrum and the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, in Nature Communicationsexternal link.

Single bacterial cells grow on the chip in about 2,000 tiny channels and can be individually studied in detail by the researchers. By recording thousands of microscopic images at short time intervals, the precise growth and behaviour of many generations of – for example – individual E. coli bacteria can be tracked over several days. 

Using this new system, the researchers can now study precisely how genes are regulated in single cells under changing environmental conditions; something tricky to achieve by analysing larger, entire cell communities.

For example, it is possible to investigate how individual bacterial cells respond to a sudden exposure to an antibiotic: whether they die, stop growing, or simply continue to divide undisturbed. It is also possible to observe the antibiotic's increasing effect duration on the cells. This is important to understand why antibiotics do not always kill all pathogens.

Gene regulation is one of the key processes that underlie the complex behaviour of biological systems, allowing cells to adapt to varying environments.

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