Beginnings of Bionic
Flexible, stretchable electronics could launch cyborg era
Michael McAlpine’s shiny circuit doesn’t look like something you would stick in your mouth. It’s dashed with gold, has a coiled antenna and is glued to a stiff rectangle. But the antenna flexes, and the rectangle is actually silk, its stiffness melting away under water. And if you paste the device on your tooth, it could keep you healthy.
The electronic gizmo is designed to detect dangerous bacteria and send out warning signals, alerting its bearer to microbes slipping past the lips. Recently, McAlpine, of Princeton University, and his colleagues spotted a single E. coli bacterium skittering across the surface of the gadget’s sensor. The sensor also picked out ulcer-causing H. pylori amid the molecular medley of human saliva, the team reported earlier this year in Nature Communications.
At about the size of a standard postage stamp, the dental device is still too big to fit comfortably in a human mouth. “We had to use a cow tooth,” McAlpine says, describing test experiments. But his team plans to shrink the gadget so it can nestle against human enamel. McAlpine is convinced that one day, perhaps five to 10 years from now, everyone will wear some sort of electronic device. “It’s not just teeth,” he says. “People are going to be bionic.”
McAlpine belongs to a growing pack of tech-savvy scientists figuring out how to merge the rigid, brittle materials of conventional electronics with the soft, curving surfaces of human tissues. Their goal: To create products that have the high performance of silicon wafers — the crystalline material used in computer chips — while still moving with the body. Beyond detecting bacteria to nip potential illnesses before they begin, such devices could comfortably monitor a person’s vital signs and deliver therapeutic treatments.
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