Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Alphabet Soup - Micro-Scale!

I can't remember when I first tried alphabet soup, but I'm sure I must have been thrilled. Here it is, food you can play with! Spell your name. Make up words with the letters in your spoon. Learn your alphabet. All at the same time! I'm sure I didn't really care that it was cheap, mass-produced pasta in chicken soup. My son, who is 2 ½, has pretty well learned the alphabet song and gotten a good hold on eating soup, so I think it's time to introduce him to alphabet soup, too. Besides, if he has some, it gives me a good excuse to eat it, too (sort of like getting to play with toys again. Yay!).

Now researchers have produced a different sort of alphabet soup, but not the sort you eat. Scientists at UCLA have used nanotechnology methods to produce tiny letters, too small to see with the naked eye, which can be visualized using microscopes:

What's really cool is they can make the letters in different fonts, and, using the miracle of fluorescence chemistry, make them glow in many different colors under certain light conditions. As written in the article, "The research will be published March 29 in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, where it will be illustrated on the cover." Called "lithoparticles", these little letters are so small they can fit inside cells. Can you spell N-E-A-T-O? But it doesn't stop with letters. These chemists can make other shapes, including triangles, donuts, crosses, and others. One of their goals is to make complex "lock-and-key" systems useful for making nano-motors. In an apparent fit of Scrabble-fever, the researchers got cheeky and spelled out the name UCLA with the lithoparticles using laser tweezers (a nifty method of using lasers to manipulate tiny particles, cells, or tissue bits). Man, talk about geeky…. I wish I could play!