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Physics meets biology in Baltimore

Photo of T-shirt from Biophysics Society meeting in Baltimore, US, Feb 2015

Biophysics in Baltimore: the T-shirt that does what it says on the tin.

By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

I’m in Baltimore this week for the 59th annual meeting of the Biophysical Society. The field of biophysics has grown rapidly in recent years as physics-based techniques have opened up new ways to study and understand biological processes, but with my limited knowledge of biology I was nervous that I would feel a little out of my depth.

The first talk of the “New and Notable” symposium helped to allay my fears. Michelle Wang is a physicist at Cornell University in the US who exploits optical techniques to trap and manipulate biomolecules. While established methods can only trap a single biomolecule at a time, Wang and her colleagues have pioneered the use of nanophotonic structures that can trap multiple biomolecules in a standing wave created within an optical waveguide.

“Our optical-trapping innovation reduces bench-top optics to a small device on a chip,” Wang told when the team first reported their so-called nanophotonic standing-wave array trap last year. Since then, Wang and her colleagues have been working to integrate fluorescent markers with the nanophotonic trap to track the position of individual biomolecules, and have also been experimenting with optical waveguide materials other than silicon to improve performance and enable new applications.

Optics is also in evidence at the industry exhibition, which features a number of companies that I normally associate with Photonics West – which is also taking place this week in San Francisco. Mikael Ek of Swedish laser manufacturer Cobolt told me that the firm’s diode-pumped solid-state lasers are widely used for biomedical techniques such as fluorescence microscopy and high-resolution Raman spectroscopy, which had dictated a presence at both events. Other big names, such as Thorlabs and Horiba, have clearly taken the same approach.

• If you’re interested in any aspect of biophysics, you might like to know that IOP Publishing – which publishes Physics World – has just launched a new journal called Biomedical Physics & Engineering Express (BPEX). BPEX is a rapid-review journal publishing new research in biomedical engineering, biophysics and medical physics, and places a special emphasis on interdisciplinary work between these fields

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