Lab-on-a-chip devices, more formally known as "Micro Total Analysis Systems" (µTAS) are microfluidics-based systems which integrate multiple laboratory-type capabilities on a single chip only a few centimeters in size. Among their uses are real-time polymerase chain reactions (used to amplify small DNA strands into more manageable samples), immunoassays, which diagnose diseases based on antigen/antibody presence, dielectrophoresis, used to detect certain cell types, and blood sample preparation, such as the extraction of DNA from red blood cells.
Lab-on-a-chip devices could one day lead to a pinhead-sized implant or skin-mounted device able to almost instantly detect the presence of disease bacteria or biochemical agents in the bloodstream. In the future, doctors may be able to make diagnoses quickly and accurately using information transmitted from such a device. Lab-on-a-chip technology has been around since the 80s and even, in precursor form, the late 70s, but it wasn't until the biotechnology explosion of the mid-90s that they really started to get attention from mainstream scientists.
Lab-on-a-chip devices are a case in point of the continuing miniaturization that takes place with numerous technologies, from computer chips to communications devices such as cell phones. Lab-on-a-chip research can be considered a subset of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), and contains many components that came out of MEMS research: micropumps, capillaries, valves, sensors, levers, and so on. One of the greatest advantages to the lab-on-a-chip is its small size, which allows for mass production and a reduced need for expensive substances sometimes necessary for certain types of lab work. However, there are numerous challenges with the scaling down of traditional chemical principles, meaning that lab-on-a-chip systems may require some re-engineering to match the functionality of their larger cousins.
In the not-so-distant future, lab-on-a-chip systems may even be integrated into familiar devices such as laptop computers, allowing chemistry and biology students to play with scientific tools outside the traditional confines of the lab environment. In recent years, numerous conferences have sprung up around the topic of labs-on-a-chip, and while the technology is still in its infancy, tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide are being invested in improving it.