Birth of the bionic chip at UC Berkeley

On February 25th researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, announced the successful invention of what they believe to be the first bionic chip. Its bionic status is accrued by virtue of it being part living tissue, part machine, in which a biological cell is part of the actual electronic circuitry.

UC Berkeley has already applied for a patent for the technology, which gives scientists something they have long sought: an ‘open sesame’ tool to get safely inside fragile, living cells at the touch of a button.

Described as the ‘first step to building complex circuitry that incorporates the living cell’ by professor Boris Rubinsky, the elaborate bionic circuitry possible now might be used for developing body implants for the treatment of genetic diseases.The new chip uses the discovery that a biological cell can act in a circuit as an electrical diode, or switch, that allows current to flow through the device at certain voltages.

The chip took three years to build using silicon microfabrication technology. It is transparent, so it can be studied by microscope, and measures about one hundredth of an inch across. The much tinier cell, which measures about 20 microns across, or one thousandth of an inch, is not visible to the naked eye. It sits in a hole in the center of the chip and is kept alive with an infusion of nutrients.Said Rubinsky: ‘The first electronic diode made possible the computer. Who knows what the first biological diode will make possible?’