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June 20, 2001

From the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory

MEDICAL - Instant diagnoses. . .

Detection and diagnosis of diseases could be simplified and made more accurate with an instrument being developed by researchers at ORNL. The device, which detects genetic mutations by identifying mismatches in DNA strands, is based on miniature micro-machined silicon cantilevers one-tenth the width of a human hair. The micro-cantilevers detect tiny forces caused by hybridization -- the binding of two single strands of DNA to form double stranded DNA - like that found in people. The device, which boasts extremely high sensitivity, works by adsorbing DNA molecules from a patient's sample and binding on a micro-cantilever treated with a known DNA sequence. If the sample DNA binds to the known DNA sequence, the cantilever bends, indicating the presence of a specific DNA sequence in the patient. In addition to its use for clinical diagnostics, researchers see this technology having nano-scale applications for implants and timed releases of medications. [Contacts: Thomas Thundat]

BIOLOGY - Fetal development in spotlight . . .

Working with SpectruMedix Corp., researchers at ORNL could soon find mutations in mice in months instead of years. Researchers are using the Temperature-Gradient Capillary Electrophoresis system to identify mutations simultaneously in 96 samples in less than an hour. This scanning technique has 13 times the capacity of conventional approaches and is also less expensive. At ORNL, researchers are focusing on identifying a cluster of five unknown mutations in mouse chromosome 7. These mutations affect genes critical for fetal development. Through a better understanding of mouse mutations, researchers hope to gain insights into the functions of human genes. The Temperature-Gradient Capillary Electrophoresis system was developed at Ames National Laboratory. [Contact: Bem Culiat]

SENSORS - Miniature mobile snoop . . .

Most criminals know about robots armed with cameras and shotguns, but there's a new law enforcement weapon on the horizon. Actually, the weapon is a micro-robot about the size of a june bug, so it's only on the horizon if you're at floor level. And that's the idea, according to developers in ORNL's Robotics and Process Systems and Life Sciences divisions. The micro-robot is a battery-powered sensor that can travel under doors, for example, and detect chemical and biological agents. The device can be equipped either with a swatch for collecting agents on the floor or a microcantilever that reacts in the presence of a specific chemical. The micro-robot is ideal for stealth applications or for monitoring areas that are difficult to reach with conventional means. Researchers have already developed a robotic device that crawls under a door and detects chemicals. [Contact: Venu Varma]

ENVIRONMENT - The mercury mystery . . .

Thousands of landfills around the nation may be serving as bioreactors, turning inorganic mercury into methylated - or organic - mercury, according to a study by researchers at ORNL. An unknown but likely significant amount of methylated mercury, which is far more toxic than inorganic mercury, is being produced in landfills as they reduce waste by generating methane. The methylated mercury is then emitted to the atmosphere along with untreated methane in the form of dimethylmercury, which can be deposited to the environment. Researchers believe this could help explain the elevated levels of methylmercury detected in rain at remote lakes in the upper midwest. Mercury, a metal that becomes more concentrated as it travels through the food chain, is dumped in landfills from an array of sources, including fluorescent bulbs, pre-1990 batteries, electrical switches, thermometers and construction waste. The research will soon be published in the journal Atmospheric Environment. [Contact: Steve Lindberg]
To arrange for an interview with any of these researchers, please contact Ron Walli of Communications and Community Outreach at 865-576-0226;

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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