Membrane nanotubes drawn by optical tweezers transmit electrical signals between mammalian cells over long distances
Biological cells continuously change shape allowing essential functions such as cell motility, vesicle-mediated release/uptake of soluble and membrane components or nanotube-mediated cell–cell communications. Here we use single cell micromanipulation to induce functional changes of cell shape for nanobiotechnological applications. Optical tweezers are focused on the plasma membrane of living cells to pull membrane nanotubes of similar200 nanometre diameters and 100 micrometre lengths. Upon switching off the laser tweezer membrane nanotubes relax back to the cell surface. Single-exponential relaxation times deliver local mechanical properties of cells' plasma membrane. Nanotubes pulled beyond 100 micrometre tear off and form micrometre-sized vesicles carrying functional membrane receptors and cytoplasmic signaling components. Membrane nanotubes from one cell can be contacted to adjacent cells forming via connexins intercellular electrical connections within seconds in all directions. Our method opens broad applications for multiplexing single-cell analytics to submicrometer/subfemtoliter ranges and for creating artificial intercellular signaling networks, both not attainable by current methodologies.