MEMS mirror developed for genetic research

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Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems (IPMS) in Dresden, Germany have developed a programmable micro-electro-mechanical (MEMS) chip which can divert light of varying wavelengths at ultra-high speed with micrometre accuracy. The first demonstrations of the device will take place between 14-17 April at SPIE Photonics Europe in Brussels.

The MEMS chip has been fitted into a microscope, where it is able to illuminate and stimulate biological structures smaller than a single cell. Such applications could include the activation of neurons, or to assist in the genetic study of zebrafish for the prevention and treatment of human disease.

By illuminating multiple targeted areas smaller than single cells, the MEMS system can stimulate specific light sensitive molecules as groups. This technique allows the illumination of objects that may first appear as structures, with high precision, and significantly reduces the many undesired environmental influences.

A single MEMS chip consists of an array of 65,536 separate micro-mirrors which can each be tilted separately and virtually in a continuous way. By controlling the deflection of all mirrors, it is possible to distribute the angle of incidence and the intensity of the light with up to 1,000 changes per second over the entire matrix area.

In order to test the benefits of this MEMS technology for use in optical microscopes, the Fraunhofer IPMS researchers collaborated with manufacturer of optical systems, In-Vision Digital Imaging Optics in Austria, and scientists of the Dynamic Imaging Patform (PFID) at the Pasteur Institute in France.

The aim of the French consortium’s leader is to apply the MEMS technology in genetics studies to influence the expression of individual genes in cells or organs of zebrafish embryos and fruit fly larvae. Such an intervention will make it possible to study the influence of specific genes on the development of organisms with far greater precision than before. Zebrafish are currently a major focus of medical research, and are being used as model systems to study human diseases, including heart failure and cancer.

The system is also intended to be used to activate neurons by means of genetically modified, light sensitive ion channels and thereby explore the function of individual neural networks in cerebral tissue.