Nano Group, University of Southampton

Nano Group

New microchip to identify the world's smallest plants

a wafer of the impedance measurement chip
a wafer of the impedance measurement chip

A chip has been developed which will measure the levels and types of algae in the sea.

Professor Hywel Morgan and his team at the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton have developed a sensor which, when dropped into the sea, can record information about the types and quantities of algae present, providing valuable information for climate studies.

Algae flow through the device one at a time and at high speed. When the device shines light at the algae, they will respond by emitting light at different wavelengths, allowing them to be characterised. The device also records data about the electrical properties of the algae.

Professor Morgan commented: 'There is very little known about the electrical properties of algae and it is these properties which tell us about the size of particles and the types of membranes. As they go through the chip, one by one, at high speed, these properties can be recorded.'

The ECS team is working with Professor Peter Burkill, Head of the George Deacon Division (GDD) at the Southampton Oceanography Centre, whose mission is to gain a better understanding of the key issues concerning the ocean and climate change. This chip will help Professor Burkill and his team in their quest to identify the algal populations in the sea.

Professor Burkill commented: 'Algae are now known to influence the climate in various ways. All algae use carbon dioxide (a major climatically active gas): while some lock up this gas in their calcified skeletons, others do not do so. Other groups of algae produce compounds such as dimethyl sulphonioproprionate (DMSP) that can become climatically active. To understand this we need to be able to differentiate the different algal types and enumerate them using equipment that is precise but cheap enough that very many can be used. That is the real strength of this development.'

The chip also has applications in DNA identification and diagnostics. Its development to date has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University's Life Sciences Interface. Ends

Posted by Joyce K Lewis on 21 Apr 2005.