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Thanks to sound waves, scientists don’t even need hands anymore

Published Sep 10th, 2020 4:03PM EDT
acoustic tweezers
Image: pogonici/Adobe

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  • Researchers from Duke University have developed a new kind of ‘acoustic tweezers’ that allows for the manipulation of tiny objects in a Petri dish without using your hands.
  • Systems like this are typically very complicated and have not seen widespread use.
  • The researchers hope to make their system simple and affordable enough to commercialize it.

Dabbling in Petri dishes has resulted in countless new discoveries for science, but you know what would make the process even better? Not having to use your hands. At least that’s the idea behind new “acoustic tweezers” being developed by scientists at Duke University. The system uses sound waves to move particles and other tiny things, like cells, without a scientist having to physically manipulate them.

The idea of using sound waves in such a way is not entirely new, but up until now, such systems have required lots of equipment and training on the part of the researchers using them. The system that Duke has developed will hopefully lower the barrier to entry.

Being able to control and manipulate items in something like a Petri dish without having to physically touch them takes one big factor out of the equation, and can be helpful for researchers who want the most accurate results possible. Acoustic tweezers solve that problem but making a system that is both user-friendly and simple has been challenging.

“Recent advances have led to many advanced, versatile tools,” Tony Jun Huang, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “However, at the end of the day, the success of this field depends on whether end-users such as biologists, chemists or clinicians are willing to adopt this technology or not. This paper demonstrates a step toward a much friendlier workflow to make it easier for end-users to adopt this technology.”

Using sound waves to manipulate tiny things is actually fairly simple, at least on paper. By applying sound waves on two sides of a chamber, the waves can actually organize small objects into groups or “nodes.” This is a very rudimentary way of moving particles inside a dish, but additional advancements have made it possible to use sound waves to generate different patterns within a dish, allowing for the hands-free manipulation of particles to new locations, or even to gather all the particles in a dish in one spot.

“The purpose of this study was to duplicate some of the previous functions of our acoustic tweezers in Petri dishes,” Huang explains. “Our next goal is to build a single prototype that realizes all of the abilities of these three setups, if not more.”

Huang and his team hope to make the system commercially available so that scientists around the world can benefit from this new, simplified take on acoustic tweezers.

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