Many of today's high-tech bioscience businesses rely on lab technicians doing slow, expensive work with old-fashioned equipment.
But by automating and miniaturising the processes involved, the lab on a chip promises cheaper, speedier and more accurate chemical analyses.
Called microfluidics, the technology uses electromagnetic fields to direct liquids around networks of tiny channels etched into microchips.
Aclara Biosciences and Sandia National Laboratories, both based in California, are two companies that build such chips. They mix tiny amounts of chemical or biological reagents, allowing experiments to be conducted faster and with lower volumes of expensive fluids.
They are currently used for drug and water quality analysis, but a portable device being developed by Sandia could test for GM content in food, or show exactly what substances drunk drivers or athletes have taken.