For decades, a laboratory technique called patch clamping has been the gold standard for measuring the electrical properties of individual cells.
The process, which has been particularly useful in neuroscience, involves bringing a pipette filled with electrolyte solution and a recording electrode connected to an amplifier, into contact with the membrane of a single cell. So basically, researchers can eavesdrop on the furtive chattering of neurons in the ongoing effort to unlock the brain’s secrets.
“Thousands of people practice this technique every day around the world,” says Craig Forest, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech. “But it is painfully tedious and time consuming.”
Forest’s lab has been working on iterations of the patcherBot for at least six years, developing an image guidance version to target cells and automation technology to create a tight seal between the glass pipette (one micron in diameter) and the cell membrane, which provides a direct electrical connection to the inside of the cell.
“Traditionally, a researcher could do five to 10 recordings a day, and that’s if they’re really good,” Forest says. “Our idea was to clean the pipette automatically after each recording, so we could tell the robot to go back to cells over and over. You don’t even have to be in the room, just set it up and leave, and when you come back to the lab, you’ve recorded about 100 cells.”
In the video below, watch the @patcherBot at work!