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"World's smallest wrench" is able to rotate individual cells

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December 4, 2012

A smooth muscle cell, trapped between the fiber-optic spanner's two offset optical fibers ...

A smooth muscle cell, trapped between the fiber-optic spanner's two offset optical fibers (Image: Optics Letters)

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If you were a scientist looking at a cell with a microscope, what would you do if you wanted get a look at the far side of that cell? You could try reaching in with a very fine-tipped pair of tweezers, but ... you’d probably be better off using something known as a fiber-optic spanner.

A team from the University of Texas at Arlington, led by assistant professor Samarendra Mohanty, created the device.

The business end of the fiber-optic spanner consists of two optical fibers, which are situated end-to-end with a small gap between them. A beam of laser light is emitted from each of these fibers – when the two beams are lined up, the force of the streaming photons is sufficient to trap a microscopic object such as a cell between them. If the fibers are slightly offset, however, and their beams hit that cell on either side, they can actually spin it around in place.

A diagram illustrating how the fiber-optic spanner is able to rotate microscopic objects (...

By changing the orientation of the fibers, the cell can be turned on any axis. It’s similar to the technology used in “optical tweezers,” although those are used more just for pushing or holding microscopic objects, not for rotating them.

Along with its use for examining cells, the researchers believe that the fiber-optic spanner could also be used for applications such as untwisting DNA strands, guiding neurons within the spinal cord, or mixing fluids in lab-on-a-chip devices.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Optics Letters.

Source: The Optical Society

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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