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What is a Microarray?

A microarray is a powerful laboratory tool that allows scientists to analyze the expression of thousands of genes simultaneously. It's like a tiny microscope slide dotted with probes that can detect specific genetic material. This technology is revolutionizing our understanding of genetics and disease. How might microarrays unlock the secrets of your DNA? Join us to uncover the possibilities.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

A microarray is a sequence of dots of DNA, protein, or tissue arranged on an array for easy simultaneous analysis. The most famous is the DNA microarray, which plays an integral role in gene expression profiling. The substrate material is glass, plastic, or a silicon chip. Alternative names for the DNA microarray include gene chip, DNA chip, and biochip. The little bits of DNA are called probes.

A microarray can be made in a variety of ways. The most primitive is to merely drop the DNA onto glass slides using pins. More sophisticated techniques employ photolithography, electrochemical approaches, and even inkjet printing -- anything that can deliver the DNA to a precise spot accurately.

Scientists can use DNA microarrays to study the activity of several thousand genes at the same time.
Scientists can use DNA microarrays to study the activity of several thousand genes at the same time.

The DNA microarray is a product of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when biotechnology really began to take off. The microarray allows a researcher to perform a sequence of tests on all of the samples at the same time, speeding up research dramatically. Traditional biological experimentation works on things one at a time. The probes are sometimes marked with dots called fluorofores when they can't easily be told apart.

A DNA microarray is sometimes referred to as a gene chip or DNA chip.
A DNA microarray is sometimes referred to as a gene chip or DNA chip.

Some of the largest microarrays, made by companies such NimbleGen Systems, contain as many as 390,000 spots. The microarray is used frequently in analyzing the entire genome of an organism, which can contain dozens of chromosomes or more, each with their own DNA and RNA. Unfortunately, not all microarrays are compatible with each other and there is a manifest lack of standards. Standardization efforts are underway, but without much success as of yet.

The microarray can be used in analyzing chromosomes.
The microarray can be used in analyzing chromosomes.

Like most cutting-edge biotechnology research agendas, tests on the microarray can produce huge amounts of data, giving rise to the field of bioinformatics, which seeks to make sense of it all. There may exist discoveries and correlations which we have already measured, but simply not noticed due to the overflow of data. Data mining is used extensively to analyze the results of these complex experiments.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • Scientists can use DNA microarrays to study the activity of several thousand genes at the same time.
      By: Darren Baker
      Scientists can use DNA microarrays to study the activity of several thousand genes at the same time.
    • A DNA microarray is sometimes referred to as a gene chip or DNA chip.
      By: adimas
      A DNA microarray is sometimes referred to as a gene chip or DNA chip.
    • The microarray can be used in analyzing chromosomes.
      By: Giovanni Cancemi
      The microarray can be used in analyzing chromosomes.