Researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) are using 'lab-on-a-chip' technology for medical testing and are customizing them to use in space to detect bacteria and life forms on other planets. These chips will also be used to protect astronauts aboard a spacecraft by detecting microbes and contaminants. These microarray diagnostic chips are very small. They also are inexpensive because they share the fabrication technology used to print circuits on computer chips. Therefore, a Martian expedition will be able to embark a very large number of these chips to secure the mission.
Below is a photograph of such a 'lab-on-a-chip' (Credit: NASA/MSFC/D.Stoffer).
Labs on chips are manufactured in many shapes and sizes and can be used for numerous applications - from medical tests to water quality monitoring to detecting the signatures of life on other planets. The eight holes on this chip are actually ports that can be filled with fluids or chemicals.
You'll find additional related photographs on this page.
The chips are made with the same micro-fabrication technique used to print circuits on computer chips. Chemicals and fluid samples can be mixed, diluted, separated, and controlled using channels or electrical circuits embedded in the chip. On Earth, some basic lab-on-a-chip technology approaches are being used for commercial, medical diagnostic applications, such as an in-office test for strep throat, or modern in-home pregnancy tests. These applications conduct a test and yield results in a short time, with a hand-held portable device containing a simple chip design.
"NASA requires complex lab-on-a-chip technology, so scientists can conduct multiple chemical and biological assays or perform many processes on a single chip," explains Dr. Helen Cole, project manager for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program. "Current commercial devices are not designed to work in space, so we are developing a set of unique chips along with a corresponding miniaturized controller and analysis unit.
Before going in space, the researchers are developing portable microarrays diagnostic chips to test for detecting specific genes or molecules of interest.
"The micro array chip system developed to go to Mars will be lightweight, portable and capable of detecting organic molecules," says Dr. Lisa Monaco, the project scientist for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program. "This instrumentation can easily be adapted for monitoring crew health and their environment."
Since the chips are small, a large number of them can be carried on a Mars rover to search for life or on carried on long-duration human exploration missions for monitoring microbes inside lunar or Martian habitats.
These chips will be used by the Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration (MASSE) project, scheduled to start in 2013.
For more information about this kind of biochip, you can read this previous story, "This Biochip Makes Nanoliter Droplet Test Tubes," which focuses on another approach. You also can read the full text of all the articles of the latest issue of the Lab on a Chip Journal.
Source: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center news release, June 1, 2004