Anthrax is a dangerous bacteria that is a weapon of choice for terrorists in our modern world but because it looks so innocuous it is difficult to spot it for what it is. This is why simple envelopes filled with baby powder can be enough to clear a building and send the threat level up.
To make the detect job easier researchers at the University of Albany and Cornell University have created a device the size of a suitcase that can identify whether that powder is anthrax or not within an hour.
The basic design, which is small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane, potentially could be tailored to detect countless other pathogens, such as salmonella, or be used in the field for DNA forensics.
“It was built with the notion of being portable,” said Carl Batt, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell and a co-author of the paper published in July in the International Journal of Biomedical Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Vol. 2, No. 2). Nathaniel Cady, Ph.D. ’06, a nanoscale engineer at the University of Albany, is the paper’s lead author.
Seven years in the making, the detector requires that a sample be inserted into the device. From there the machine automatically recovers cells, collects and purifies DNA and then 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.
The 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 said.
The shape of a heavily reinforced suitcase, the device is complete with pumps, heating and cooling elements, and optical and computational circuitry.
Chalk one up for the good guys. Can we do something about those airport scanners next please.