Imagine tiny robots, invisible to the naked eye, equipped with nanoscale grippers, capable of manipulating the fundamental units of life: cells. This isn’t science fiction—it’s the latest innovation from scientists who have developed laser-operated microrobots that can precisely handle single cells, offering groundbreaking opportunities in imaging and cell manipulation.

THE FUTURE OF CELL MANIPULATION

These nanoscale marvels can grip, move, and rotate cells, each measuring just 30 to 40 micrometers. This precision allows researchers to explore cellular interactions and answer fundamental biological questions like never before.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE MICROROBOTS

Developed by biophysicist Lóránd Kelemen and his team at the Szeged Institute of Biophysics in Hungary, these microrobots work in tandem with optical tweezers—a technique using focused laser beams to trap microscopic objects. As Kelemen explains, when a small object enters the laser’s focus, it refracts the light, altering its momentum and generating a force that holds the object in place.

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES WITH INNOVATION

Traditional optical tweezers can damage cells due to the heat generated by the laser. To mitigate this, scientists previously used microbeads as handles for the tweezers. However, these beads often damaged cells and couldn’t be removed once attached. Kelemen’s team circumvented this problem by designing microrobots that can gently grip cells without causing harm.

PRECISION ENGINEERING

The microrobots were crafted using two-photon polymerization, a process that hardens polymers only where the laser light touches. This technique allowed the team to build the microrobots with nanometer precision, ensuring they were flexible enough to grip cells yet sturdy enough to be manipulated by the optical tweezers.

SUCCESSFUL TESTING AND APPLICATIONS

Tests demonstrated that these microrobots could effectively grip and manipulate single cells without causing damage. The team designed three tools for different tasks: transferring cells, rotating cells for imaging, and pressing two cells together to study their interactions.

A STEP TOWARDS WIDESPREAD USE

While not every laboratory is equipped with optical tweezers, those that are can adapt these microrobots for various tasks, potentially revolutionizing single-cell research. With the blueprint and the increasing availability of two-photon polymerization systems, more labs could soon produce and utilize these innovative tools.

This breakthrough, detailed in the study by Lóránd Kelemen et al., published in *Advanced Science*, represents a significant leap forward in non-destructive cell manipulation and imaging, paving the way for new discoveries in the natural cellular environment.


Reference: Lóránd Kelemen, et al., “Optically Actuated Soft Microrobot Family for Single-Cell Manipulation,” *Advanced Science* (2024). DOI: 10.1002/adma.202401115

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