How to build a nanomachine that detects Ebola

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Researchers say they’ve designed a nanomachine capable of detecting a mockup of the Ebola virus.

Eric Henderson, a professor of genetics, development and cell biology at Iowa State University, says such a machine would prove valuable in the developing world, where access to diagnostic medical equipment can be rare.

He says his nanotechnology could be fabricated cheaply and deployed easily. Used in conjunction with a smartphone app, nearly anyone could use the technology to detect Ebola or any number of other diseases and pathogens without the need for traditional medical facilities.

The trick lies in understanding the rules that govern how DNA works, according to Henderson.

“It’s possible to exploit that rule set in a way that creates advantages for medicine and biotechnology,” he says.

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The iconic double-helix structure of DNA means that one strand of DNA will bind only with a complementary side. Even better, those compatible strands find each other automatically, like a castle that builds itself.

Henderson harnessed those same principles for his nanomachines. The components, once added to water and then heated and cooled, find each other and assemble correctly without any further effort from the individual deploying the machines.

And just how “nano” is a nanomachine? Henderson says about 40 billion individual machines fit in a single drop of water.

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The machines act as a diagnostic tool that detects certain maladies at the genetic level.

For the recently published paper in Scientific Reports, Henderson and graduate student Divita Mathur, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Naval Research Laboratory, designed the machines to look for signs of a mock version of Ebola.

Henderson employed an embedded photonic system that tests for the presence of the target molecules. If the machines sniff out what they’re looking for, the photonic system flashes a light, which can be detected with a machine called a fluorometer.

Henderson says this sort of technology could be modified to find certain kinds of molecules or pathogens, allowing for virtually anyone, anywhere to run diagnostic tests without access to medical facilities.

He also envisions a time when similar nanoscale architectures could be used to deliver medication precisely where it needs to go at precisely the right time. These nanomachines, built from DNA, essentially would encapsulate the medication and guide it to its target.

Source: Iowa State University