Scientists are trying to get the hang of how our immune system responds to chemical scents from bacteria which help it to sniff out infection in the body.
Studying how immune cells manipulate their movement in response to external signals could shed light not only on how our immune system functions but also how cancer cells spread through the body and even how the brain wires itself.
Dr Holger Kress described a new technique pioneered by himself and Professor Eric Dufresne at Yale University in the US that uses sponge-like micro-particles to mimic bacteria.
The micro-particles slowly release a characteristic bacterial "scent" that is picked up by immune cells, causing them to actively move towards the source of the chemical in an attempt to hunt down the model microbes.
The micro-particles can be trapped and manipulated three-dimensionally using 'optical tweezers' - highly focussed laser beams that are able to precisely control the movement of the particles to within a millionth of a millimetre.
"By controlling the shape of the chemical signals, we were able to control the movements of immune cells and study how they respond to the signals," said Kress.
The scientists found that a single chemical-releasing micro-particle was enough to encourage neutrophils (a type of immune cell) to migrate towards it.
Even after an exposure of less than one minute to the micro-particle, the neutrophils could polarize the growth of their internal 'skeleton' in the direction of the chemical.
Kress explained that although researchers had successfully identified the types of chemical signals that stimulate immune cells, it is still a challenge to work out the exact details of the immune cell response.
"This new technique allows us to measure systematically how cells respond to various stimuli over minute gradients in time and space," he said.
Kress believes his technique could be applied across a wide range of research fields.
"Cell migration along chemical gradients of this kind plays a key role in wound healing and the wiring of the brain. It is also an essential feature of many diseases - particularly metastatic cancers," he said.
The study was presented at the Society for General Microbiology's spring meeting in Edinburgh.