The room is dark, lit only by a thin red beam streaking out from a long box on a laboratory table. Jennifer Robbins slips a slide of dead rhodo spirillum bacteria under a microscope lens. A computer screen comes alive with movement as the cells float by. Heidrun Schmitzer aims the laser beam at the center of the slide. “I have it,” Schmitzer says as the cell begins to spin. “Always to the right,” she says. When she taps the slide, the cell slips away and stops spinning.
Since May, Robbins, a biology instructor, and Schmitzer, an assistant professor of physics, have been researching the ability of laser light to capture and control bacteria cells. The knowledge could lead to developing medical tools from living cells, perhaps using laser light to drive cellular “screws.” For now, though, they’re happy knowing it works and that they’ve proved it’s the light, not the cell’s own energy, making it spin.