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Nano alphabet soup gets cooking

Researchers develop microscale particles shaped like letters that could eventually be used to tag cells inside humans. Images: Microscale particles shaped like letters

Scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles have come up with a bowl of Alpha-Bits for the nanotechnology era.

Researchers at the university have created a technique for developing precise, uniform objects measuring microns across. A micron is a millionth of a meter--the average human hair is 60 microns wide. They've produced three-dimensional objects, triangles, crosses, doughnut shapes and billions of fluorescent letters.

Ultimately, the letters and other objects could be used by doctors to tag cells inside humans, according to Thomas G. Mason, a UCLA associate professor of chemistry and a co-author of a paper describing the breakthrough. The letters are smaller than cells and glow; thus, the letters could highlight cells for a physician but not obstruct his or her view of a cell.

"We have demonstrated the power of a new method, at the microscale, to create objects of precisely designed shapes that are highly uniform in size," Mason said in a statement. "They are too small to see with the unaided eye, but with an optical microscope, you can see them clearly; the letters stand out in high fidelity. Our approach also works into the nanoscale."

It may also be possible to produce objects that measure only a few nanometers, or billionths of a meter, across.

The letters and shapes are part of the field of thermal microrheology, or the study of soft materials like polymers at the micro scale, which Mason helped pioneer in the 1990s.

The letters could be manufactured to conform to a variety of typefaces, even something like the Times New Roman font favored by many newspapers. The researchers, though, opted for one created by the lead author of the paper, graduate student Carlos Hernandez.

By manipulating the letters with lasers, one can spell out words.

The paper will be published on March 29 in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.