Portable, pronto anthrax detection

CORNELL (US) — A device about the size of a suitcase can detect the presence of the anthrax bacterium in about one hour—even with a sample as small as 40 microscopic spores.

Small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane, the technology has the potential to be tailored to detect other pathogens like salmonella or be used for DNA forensics.


“It was built with the notion of being portable,” says Carl Batt, professor of food science at Cornell University, who worked with lead author Nathaniel Cady, a nanoscale engineer at the University of Albany.

Researchers began by acquiring what amounts to a small suitcase-sized plastic box with the notion that, “whatever we do, it has to fit in here. It was a line in the sand, an engineering challenge where everything had to fit in the box,” Batt says.

The device is complete with pumps, heating and cooling elements, and optical and computational circuitry. The technology is detailed in the International Journal of Biomedical Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.

To make a detection, a sample is inserted into the device that then automatically recovers cells, collects and purifies DNA, and conducts real-time polymerase chain reactions (PCR) to identify if anthrax is present. PCR can amplify extremely small amounts of DNA and is a well-established platform for rapidly detecting biological material.

By tailoring different assays to the portable real-time PCR platform, the device could be used for a variety of applications in addition to anthrax detection, such as at a crime scene for forensics. For example, if detectives were to find a sample they believe belongs to a perpetrator, they might use such a device to rapidly and broadly determine the gender or eye color of the suspect.

The researchers are currently working to develop new strategies for pumping fluids into the device. Novel pumping systems based on silicon processing could allow engineers to fabricate most of the components of the system on a single chip.

The research was funded by KRAFT foods, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Justice, and the Food and Drug Administration.

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