Consider the lowly worm. As life-forms go, theyre quite literally simple creatures that offer no promise of enlightened conversation or of inspiring creativity. But MIT researcher Mehmet Fatih Yanik takes a unique view of these squiggly masses. In fact, one tiny, transparent worm called C. elegans inspired Yanik, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, to create an award-winning device that many of his colleagues say has the potential to help generate cures for a number of neurological diseases and conditions, including Parkinsons disease.
The invention, which last week got a $1.5 million New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health, is a polymer microchip that allows researchers to rapidly check for genetic mutations in C. elegans and automatically sort them by category for further observation and testing. The chip can accomplish in a month what normally takes six months.
The 3-by-4-inch, double-layered polymer chip works likes this: The top layer of the chip contains thousands of mazelike chambers into which the C. elegans worms are shuttled. The second layer provides suction to immobilize the worms for viewing under a microscope. A computerized microscope looks at whether there are any interesting (genetic) mutations with each of the worms, and if there is, tells the chip to route that worm to a specific chamber for further analysis, Yanik says.