A new technique for rapid, on-the-spot detection of dangerous biological substances could give a major boost to anti-terrorist operations worldwide.
Harnessing the ability of coated metal particles to change colour in the presence of toxins, viruses and bacteria, it aims to provide a quick ‘yes/no’ indication of the safety of substances found at crime scenes, in luggage or in suspects’ possession.
This will be one of ten case studies highlighting the current research supported by EPSRC in the area of forensic science on show at Crime Prevention and Detection Technologies Event: Forensic Science on March 30 at City Barbican Hotel, London.
Countering biological attacks is a key priority in the war against terror. While most methods of identifying bioterrorist materials are lab-based, the pioneering technique being developed at the University of East Anglia has the potential to be incorporated in an easy-to-use field instrument.
This would enable security services to deal promptly with dangerous substances and avoid taking unnecessary, time-consuming precautions with harmless ones.
The technique is based on the coating of metal nanoparticles with different sugars that recognise particular biological substances. The substance binds to the sugar, which causes a solution containing the nanoparticles to change colour (e.g. gold particles turn from red to blue), revealing the presence of the substance. The colour of a solution of the nanoparticles changes colour when the particles clump together. Light interacting with the nanoparticles is absorbed differently when the particles have aggregated as compared to when they are dispersed. Ensuring this colour change occurs even when small amounts of harmful substances are present is a key objective of the research.
The project also involves the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the Ministry of Defence. The new technique could even be adapted to help developing countries detect water infected with cholera and other diseases as a result of natural disasters. Professor David Russell and Professor Robert Field of the University of East Anglia are leading the 3-year initiative, which is receiving EPSRC funding of just over £219,000. Professor Russell says: “Our project is focusing on the basic science needed to underpin the new technique. Once this is complete, device design and field testing will be needed, with real-world deployment of a simple, robust detection system perhaps 5 years away.”
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