Another in this year’s series of studies for the Semiconductor Synthetic Biology roadmap was a meeting in Atlanta that focused on hybrid systems, in which a silicon / electronic device is physically integrated with a biological system.
This is an area that’s largely out of my area of expertise, and so I did a lot more listening than talking. More than anything else, I was struck by how the defining feature of any semiconductor/biological hybrid system is the surface interface between the two different chemistries. There were a lot of different interface technologies discussed, each providing a different valuable modality of connection, such as imaging and capacitance sensing, direct chemical sensing, physical stimulus increasing cell viability, receiving electrical signals from cells, etc. Most of these wonderful proof of concept capabilities, however, are currently mutually incompatible, for the simple reason that you can’t make a surface be all of these things at once—and even where you could in theory, we don’t necessarily have the manufacturing technology to do so yet.
Still, the potential for high impact is there, even if we can only integrate and exploit some of the different modalities of interaction between cells and silicon. Personally, I am most excited about the possibility of large-scale non-invasive single-cell assays and control. I described this in a brief talk that I was invited to give in a session on motivating applications. Running some back-of-the-envelope numbers, I think one of the applications that would be both high-value and high-impact is improved assay technology, combining the high resolution, temporal tracking, and low-invasiveness of microscopy with the high throughput and large numbers of cells that can be obtained with flow cytometry. At least some of the investigators and investors in the field seems to be convinced that’s of value also, and so I think it’s reasonable to hope to see improved assay devices of this sort on the market within the next five years.