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At MIT, Yanik's Microchip Takes Worm Assays High-Throughput

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MIT researchers have created a lab-on-a-chip device that can be used to run high-throughput assays on the model lab worm, C. elegans. Mehmet Yanik, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, is counting on his invention to change the face of high-throughput, live animal screening.

“We developed the technology that basically allows you to completely computerize these screens,” Yanik says. Prior to this, large-scale screens were run on individual worms, and they had to be assayed one at a time, a process that is both time-consuming and labor-intensive. This chip is the first of its kind, and a variety of assays can be run more efficiently — on a genome-wide, high-throughput scale — that couldn’t be done before. The chip works by flowing the worms inside, immobilizing them by suction, and then using a camera and high-resolution microscope to capture images.

“The applications are immense,” Yanik says. “This can automate many, many of the assays that one can perform on a multicellular organism like C. elegans.” One area where Yanik envisions the chip being extremely useful is for large-scale RNAi screens. “Being able to turn off individual genes and to look into phenotype is extremely powerful because by … automating this process we can do our entire genome very rapidly, [and] we can ask the question what each gene does to the phenotype.”

His group at MIT studies neurogeneration and degeneration, and many assays that he routinely performs stand to be improved by the chip-based screening technology, especially concerning large-scale investigations. “We want to discover, on an entire genome-wide scale ... which genes are controlling the growth of neurons, and how they are controlling the growth of neurons,” Yanik says.

In terms of capturing an accurate picture of how neurons come and go, Yanik says that it’s no longer possible to study the process by looking at individual genes. “[In] my lab, our entire work is based on high-throughput screening technologies,” he says. “We never do a one-gene-at-a-time kind of manipulation.” His team can use the new microchip to perform whole-animal, whole-genome screens, and lessen the manual manipulation time that has previously hindered high-throughput studies like RNAi screens on neuronal development in C. elegans.

Though it’s being used only for research purposes as of yet, Yanik has considered possible future commercialization as well as translating his work on the microchip into research using human neurons.