Just when you thought lasers couldn’t get any cooler…the next potentially wicked type of laser may be a bio-laser.
Researchers have tweaked biological cells in such a way that they can actually emit monochromatic, coherent light…amplified beams of light in which all photons are essentially the same wavelength and in phase with each other…in other words, laser light.
How damn cool is that????
That reminds me of Alan Dean Foster’s book Sentenced to Prism, in which a world of carbon and silicon life evolved living crystal organisms that can biologically produce deadly laser beams when exposed to the sun.
Seok-Hyun Yun, an optical physicist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, has developed a “living laser” with his colleague Malte Gather.
So how did they pull this off?
Well, lasers need a few components to be appropriately called a laser.
You need a lasing material. A material that amplifies the light. This is called the gain medium. Conventional lasers use matter in any state whether a soild, liquid, gas, even plasma. Typical examples are crystals (Ruby Lasers), semiconductors, and purified gasses. But these are all synthetic materials. Now a new altogether different class of a gain media has been created, amd it’s biological. In this case, proteins.
The researchers engineered human embryonic kidney cells to produce GFP, green fluorescent protein — this is the substance that makes jellies bioluminescent.
Another key component in a laser is a way to reflect the light that has already been amplfied back into the gain media to be amplified more. The researchers made this real tiny optical cavity and put the cell inside it. This microcavity had two mirrors on opposite sides 20 millionths of a meter apart. The light reflects back and forth over and over building strength until it can overcome the mirror that is made to allow the intense laser light through.
Finally, you need a way to get energy into this system to start the process. This is called laser pumping. Is this case, the researchers made a specialized mucroscope that could pump light into one cell.
When they put all these elements together; a cell with GFP, a reflecting optical cavity, light from a microscope as a powersource….they ended up with beautiful green laser light. It was weak laser light compared to conventional lasers but it was 10 times brighter than natural jelly fluorescence.
So what the hell can they do with this?
Nothing at all…there’s no conceivable applications for this.
Actually that’s not true.
This new branch of laser tech could be a boon for disease diagnosis, intra-cellular sensing and imaging. Of course there’s the potential for the obvious sci-fi application of a Dr turning on a laser within a cell to attack diseased cells.
It could also be used to get light-encoded information into and out of a body.
Biologists use cells that flouresce in test tubes all the time to study cell biology. Getting this light to pass through a body is tough because it just diffuses. You can imagine then hybrid implantable devices made of living and nonliving matter that could beam out information.
So what they’re talking about then is bringing computation and optical communication into the realm of biotechnology.
Dr. Gather states.
“That could be particularly useful in projects requiring the interfacing of electronics with biological organisms. We also hope to be able to implant a structure equivalent to the mirrored chamber right into a cell, which would be the next milestone in this research.”
The key challenge remaining then is miniaturizing the pumping of the laser cell with energy (light or perhaps electrical energy) to get the process started. This sounds pretty difficult but once this whole process is fully encapsulated within a cell then we’re really talking.