Living lasers made by injecting oil droplets into human cells

Light fantastic (Image: Matjaž Humar and Seok Hyun Yun)

Individual cells have been turned into tiny lasers. “It’s actually super-easy,” says Matjaž Humar of Harvard Medical School. The feat allows cells to be labelled and monitored more accurately, which could boost our ability to track the spread of diseases such as cancer.

Humar and his colleagues developed three ways to get cells to emit visible light. The first involved injecting each one with a tiny oil droplet, forming an optical cavity which could be filled with fluorescent dye. Shining a light pulse on to the cavity excited the dye atoms into emitting light in a tightly focused beam.

They also scattered polystyrene beads 10 micrometres wide into a Petri dish filled with macrophages, a type of white blood cell that ingests foreign material. Once these cells had ingested the beads, they performed the same function as the oil droplets, emitting laser light when excited.

The final way involved exploiting the fatty droplets that exist naturally within living cells. “We all have these fat cells inside our tissue. We are all made of lasers,” says Humar. The first two approaches were tested on human cells, the last on pig cells.

Living lasers made by injecting oil droplets into human cells

A shining achievement (Image: Matjaž Humar and Seok Hyun Yun)

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