Anthrax Detector Developed To Secure Public Spaces
A prototype alarm device that automatically scans the air for the presence of bacterial spores such as anthrax has been demonstrated by researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The system, similar to a smoke detector, is designed for continuous, unattended monitoring of spaces such as public facilities and commercial buildings.
The system sounds an alarm when an increase in spore concentration is detected by an ultraviolet light. A technician would then confirm the presence of anthrax spores with traditional analysis. The instrument response time is 15 minutes, fast enough to help prevent widespread contamination.
Interest in development of a simple detection system became urgent after letters contaminated with anthrax spores killed five people in the United States last year. These crimes have not yet been solved.
Current methods of detecting bacterial spores which require a trained operator constantly on duty are too costly for widespread use.
Dr. Adrian Ponce, a chemist and senior member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Elizabeth Lester, a senior in microbiology at Baylor University, performed the tests on the anthrax detector last summer. Their paper, published in the October 11 issue of “Engineering in Medicine and Biology” magazine, details their test results.
The idea for the anthrax detector arose when Lester, who is part Choctaw Indian, participated in a Caltech program that gives talented undergraduates from minority groups the opportunity to spend up to 10 weeks working with professional researchers. The program, called Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowships, brought Lester under the guidance of Dr. Ponce.
Using harmless Bacillus subtilis spores, found worldwide in soils and on root vegetables, the two researchers aerosolized them to simulate an anthrax attack. During the tests, aerosolized spores were captured with an aerosol sampler and suspended in a solution, the researchers explain.
Suspended spores were ruptured with microwaves to release a chemical from inside the spores called dipicolinic acid, unique to bacterial spores. This dipicolinic acid instantly reacts with the chemical sensor in the solution.
Under ultraviolet light the sensor triggers a green luminescence, which appears more intense as the concentration of bacterial spores in the sample increases.
Lester has been inspired by the success of her collaboration with Dr. Ponce. “Through my opportunity to immerse myself into a research lab I have rediscovered my love for scientific research. I now plan to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering and further discoveries into the technologies used in everyday lives to improve the life one has,” she says.
Described by Ponce and Lester as “simple and robust” the device they call an “anthrax smoke detector” may be available commercially as the result of an agreement JPL has entered into with Universal Detection Technology of Beverly Hills, California, a public company specializing in environmental monitoring technologies.
They will combine JPL spore detection technology with Universal’s aerosol capture device to create a detector that is practical for use in large public spaces.
The partnership with Universal Detection Technology is possible through the Technology Affiliates Program, one of many commercial technology programs that permit transferring JPL knowledge to the private sector to benefit the general public. The automatic bacterial spore detector will permit continuous monitoring of public facilities such as airports, hospitals, schools, and government buildings to increase the level of security against biohazards.
“Having a technician continuously monitor the air for spores is like having the fire department live at your house to ensure that there is no fire,” said Dr. Ponce. “What you want is a smoke detector, a device that continuously monitors the air for smoke, or in our case, bacterial spores.” 2002. A
Provided by theEnvironmental News Service.