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At the Interface of Life

At first glance, electronics and biology do not appear to have much in common. While electronics deals with the development of transistors and chips, biology addresses proteins and synapses, the building blocks of life and intelligence.

Now, Jülich researchers are shedding light on the value of symbiosis between the two disciplines. Better understanding of the possible interfaces between electronics and biology could help artificial retinas to be developed or prostheses that can be directly controlled by the patient's nervous system. Or biochips that can detect trace elements in air and water, quickly and reliably.

An important step in this direction involves establishing information paths between biological and electronic systems. For instance, neurons can be attached to the electrodes of transistors in order to amplify and measure the time-dependent variable electrical potential of the cells. Cells react highly sensitively to environmental toxins or pharmaceutical agents. This reaction can be exploited by bioelectronics in order to develop precise detection procedures.

To enhance signal transduction between the cell membrane and the electrode contact, researchers are developing nanostructured surfaces, for instance, from gold bars or biomolecules, to which the cells can attach and grow particularly well. Against this backdrop, it is important to understand what information is contained in the electrical signals that promotes growth–the precondition for reliably measuring their electrical signals.

On the other hand, chemical signals of the nerve synapses can also be detected, such as the molecule dopamine. Innovative detectors exploit the fact that the molecule loses an electron at an anode and gains one at the cathode. With the right electrode geometry, the process constantly repeats itself and generates a measurable current. Even a single molecule of a cellular neurotransmitter can be detected in this manner, enabling "conversations" between nerve cells to be listened in on and coupling between electronic components to be improved.

In this way, Jülich research on bioelectronics is laying important foundations that are already in demand by industry.