September 1, 2008 Engineers invented a device to bring air samples into contact with genetically engineered biosensors in the effort to detect dangerous biological agents. The technology uses multiple collections of altered cell antibodies, each collection designed to respond to a specific pathogen by releasing photons of a unique wavelength upon finding it. Detectors measure the photons' wavelengths and interpret the pathogens they represent.
Anthrax, plague and small pox are some of the possible pathogens terrorists could use against us; but now, researchers say jellyfish are helping prevent these kinds of attacks.
From public transportation to federal and government buildings, experts are naming likely targets of bioterrorism.
Now, this innovative biosensor developed by scientists and engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory can identify harmful bacteria or viruses in the air in less than two minutes.
"It's at least ten times faster than any other automated sensor that's available," says James Harper, a biochemist and engineer at MIT.
In the lab, Todd Rider first developed the CANARY Sensor using jellyfish DNA and a high-voltage electrical charge. "I was in the lab with the electric creator," says Rider, a biologist at MIT. "I had mouse cells and the jellyfish DNA, and I frizzed my hair, said please give me life and pressed the buttons -- and the jellyfish DNA went inside the cells, and we had glowing mouse cells."
The glowing cells reveal the presence of a targeted pathogen. Still, scientists had no way to test air samples for pathogens until Harper created the PANTHER.
Scientists say operation is as simple as loading your DVD player. Disks containing sixteen chambers are loaded into the PANTHER. The machine pulls air through the disk to collect and test any pathogen that might be in the air. "That disk contains the cells that are the key to the canary technology," Harper says. "It releases those cells into the collected particles and looks for the resulting light, and gives you a sense of what's detected."
If a dangerous pathogen is detected, the sensor goes off -- alerting anyone who could be in harm's way.
Scientists and engineers say the CANARY technology can eventually be used for medical diagnostics to test patient samples. It may even be used in food processing plants to identify contaminants like E. coli or salmonella.
The technology is now licensed commercially.
WHAT IS PANTHER? The PANTHER device uses immune cells altered to act as detectors of dangerous biological agents. The device takes in air, runs it past the cells, which are gathered into groups, each designed to react to specific agent. The cells, which are engineered to respond to a specific pathogen, release photons of light when they detect their target. Other detectors recognize the release of light to indicate the pathogen that was detected. Based on the wavelengths of light that were released, the device outputs a list of dangerous pathogens that were found, about three minutes after beginning the test.
This report has also been produced thanks to a generous grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.