A new device called the iChip, short for isolation chip, may unlock the potential to culture the majority of microbes that still remain undiscovered.
So far, standard microbiology culture methods have only been able to grow about 1% of microbial species in vitro on synthetic media (1). Beginning in 2002, the iChip was designed and tested by a team of researchers from multiple universities and industry partners and eventually completed its phase I (proof of concept) design in 2010.
The iChip is capable of isolating and growing pure microbial cultures at a high throughput. With the ability to recover more organisms that were previously unable to be cultured by current methods, the iChip has the potential to improve the present understanding of environmental microorganisms and will allow for new discoveries that are applicable to various areas of biotechnology and medicine (2).
What makes the iChip unique is that it allows for bacteria to remain in their “natural environment” by bringing the environment to the lab. The iChip is capable of culturing organisms from soil, sea water, saliva, salt marsh, and wastewater bioreactors (1,2,3).
In order to accomplish this, the iChip utilizes a “chip,” which consists of a hard piece of plastic with 192 tiny wells. To use this device, the user simply dips the unit in a bacterial sample mixed with agar to trap a single cell in each well. After collection of the bacterial sample, a diffusion membrane is placed on each side of the chip in order to lock the microbes in place. The membranes are subsequently secured with plastic plates, and the iChip is placed into a large sample of its original environment where nutrients may permeate through the membranes. This has been shown to allow for an observed 30,000% increase in bacterial growth compared to standard agar plates (1).