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Honey, I Shrunk the Lab!
Imagine a huge laboratory filled with people and equipment shrinking to fit on a small chip -- the size of a dime.

Scientists on Earth use labs on chips for medical tests and other research. Now, NASA scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are miniaturizing and customizing these chips for use in the harsh space environment. One day, space explorers may use lab-on-a-chip technology in handheld devices that can detect contaminants, and rovers may use them to identify life on Mars and other places.

Dr. Lisa Monaco examines a lab on a chip. Image right: Dr. Lisa Monaco, the project scientist for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program, examines a lab on a chip. View more Lab on a Chip photos.

Lab-on-a-chip technology allows chemical and biological processes -- previously conducted on large pieces of laboratory equipment -- to be performed on a small glass plate with fluid channels, known to scientists as microfluidic capillaries.

"We are studying how lab-on-a-chip technology can be used for new tools to detect bacteria and life forms on Earth and other planets and for protecting astronauts by monitoring crew health and detecting microbes and contaminants in spacecraft," explains Dr. Helen Cole, project manager for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program.

The chips are made with the same micro-fabrication technique used to print circuits on computer chips. Chemicals and fluid samples can be mixed, diluted, separated, and controlled using channels or electrical circuits embedded in the chip. On Earth, some basic lab-on-a-chip technology approaches are being used for commercial, medical diagnostic applications, such as an in-office test for strep throat, or modern in-home pregnancy tests. These applications conduct a test and yield results in a short time, with a hand-held portable device containing a simple chip design.

Lab on a chip, designed to grow biological crystals aboard the International Space Station Image right: This chip, designed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., was developed to grow biological crystals aboard the International Space Station. The holes on the chip are ports that can be filled with fluids or chemicals. The lines on the chip are tiny channels that connect the ports. Miniscule valves control chemical processes on the chip. View more Lab on a Chip photos.

"NASA requires complex lab-on-a-chip technology, so scientists can conduct multiple chemical and biological assays or perform many processes on a single chip," says Cole. "Current commercial devices are not designed to work in space, so we are developing a set of unique chips along with a corresponding miniaturized controller and analysis unit."

By applying this chip technology in laboratories and in the field where organisms live in extreme environments on Earth, astrobiologists can compare Earth-life with that which may be found on other planets.

Animation still shows a syringe placing fluids in ports on chip. Image right: This animation still shows fluids being placed in the tiny ports of a lab on a chip. View animation of how the lab on a chip works.

"The microarray chip system developed to go to Mars will be lightweight, portable and capable of detecting organic molecules," says Dr. Lisa Monaco, the project scientist for the Lab-on-a-Chip Applications Development program. "This instrumentation can easily be adapted for monitoring crew health and their environment."

Since the chips are small, a large number of them can be carried on a Mars rover to search for life or carried on long-duration human exploration missions for monitoring microbes inside lunar or Martian habitats. Read more about the Vision for Space Exploration.

"We need customized microarray chips to find and characterize life at remote places on Earth, Mars, and other places in the solar system," says Dr. Andrew Steele, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a private research organization. Steele, the principal investigator for the Modular Assays for Solar System Exploration project, is working with Marshall scientists and engineers to develop the technology and instruments needed to analyze samples quickly and produce images of samples.

"When astrobiologists study life in extreme environments -- whether it lives deep in the ocean, in Antarctica, or on Mars -- they need a handheld device or something that can fit on a small robot," Steele explains. "We also need to be able to analyze the tests as quickly as possible within periods from 1 to 24 hours. Marshall is one of just a few places in the world developing these specific technologies for space and exploration applications."

For more information, see also:
+ Lab on a Chip News Release
+ Lab on a Chip Photos
+ Lab on a Chip Animation

Steve Roy, Marshall Space Flight Center