Milan Mrksich, 33
University of Chicago
Marrying biological and electronic systems could yield advances in drug discovery, bioweapon detection—even computing. But the chemistry must be just right for living cells and electronics to talk. Milan Mrksich is the perfect matchmaker. The University of Chicago chemist coats the surfaces of electronic devices with organic molecules that can convert a chemical signal into an electrical one, and vice versa—creating a means of communication unlike anything developed by the handful of other researchers working on hybrid devices. Cells in a bioweapon detector, for example, could produce an enzyme when infected by a virus. The enzyme would interact with molecules on the surface of a microchip, triggering an electrical signal that would set off an alarm.With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, Mrksich aims to build a prototype detector within five years. He also envisions computing devices that would exploit the different ways living and electronic systems handle information. But for now, Mrksich is just excited that he’s sparked a conversation between cells and circuits.