Electronic devices have been used for decades to help doctors track our brain waves, register our beating hearts, and restore hearing to the deaf. Now, a mix of nanoelectronics experts, materials scientists, and neuroscientists are creating ultrasmall, flexible, and stretchable electronic devices that can communicate with individual cells. That's laying the groundwork for using nanoelectronics to meld with and communicate with tissues as they grow, which, in turn, may open the door to a new era of engineered tissues—everything from electronic skin for prosthetics that restore touch for amputees to tissues in which specific genes can be turned on at will during development. What lies in store for the future at the interface of electronics and biology? Who will likely benefit early on? And where is this research heading?
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Michael McAlpine is nanomaterials expert at Princeton University in New Jersey. His group recently developed the world's first bionic organ, an engineered ear printed using a 3D printer that came complete with an metallic antenna that was able to pick up both auditory sound waves as well as ultrasound. His team has also created chemical sensors that they placed on teeth, enabling them to detect potentially harmful bacteria.
John Rogers is a chemist and materials scientist at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He's pioneered research in nanoelectronics and flexible electronics, and recently has combined those advances to create soft, pliable electronics that work in conjunction with living tissue. Rogers and his colleagues have used these devices to envelop beating hearts to track their activity and mold to the contours of the skin to better sense touch and motion.
Robert (Bob) writes about chemistry and materials science, delving into topics ranging from solar energy and fuel cells to proteomics and artificial bone.