'Alive' liquid crystals to detect deadly diseases early

In a breakthrough, scientists have developed living liquid crystals that hold promise for improving early detection of diseases, including cancer.

In a living liquid crystal - with a simple polarising microscope - one can see with unusual clarity the wake-like trail stimulated by the rotation of bacterial flagella just 24-nanometres thick - about 1/4,000th the thickness of an average human hair!

"As a bio-mechanical hybrid, living liquid crystal moves and reshapes itself in response to external stimuli. It also stores energy just as living organisms do to drive its internal motion," said researchers from Ohio's Kent State University and Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory.

One can also control and guide active movements of the bacteria by manipulating variables such as oxygen availability, temperature or surface alignment - thus introducing a new design concept for creating micro-fluidic biological sensors.

"Living liquid crystal provides a medium to amplify tiny reactions that occur at the micro- and nano-scales - where molecules and viruses interact - and to also easily optically detect and analyse these reactions," explained Shuang Zhou from Ohio's Kent State University.

That suits living liquid crystal to making sensing devices that monitor biological processes such as cancer growth or infection.

"Such microfluidic technology can help detect disease in its earliest stages when it is most treatable and most cost-effectively managed," added Andrey Sokolov of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

They presented their research at the 58th annual Biophysical Society meeting in San Francisco recently.

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