New sensor can ID dangerous bacteria

After the recent events of bioterrorism, quick detection of microbes has become imperative. To that end, researchers have devised a new sensor that differentiates between two major classes of bacteria. Soon, sensors of the same general design might detect individual types of bacteria–including those that cause foodborne illnesses, anthrax, and the plague.

To make the detectors, Benjamin L. Miller of the University of Rochester in New York and his colleagues created organic molecules called TWTCPs. They bind to a compound, known as lipid A, in the cell walls of so-called gram-negative bacteria.

Next, the researchers chemically bonded TWTCP to the internal and external surfaces of a quarter-size wafer of porous silicon. They expected that gram-negative bacteria would bind to the TWTCP and subtly change the wafer’s color by their presence in its pores, whereas so-called gram-positive bacteria wouldn’t bind because they don’t contain lipid A.

The researchers were right. When the researchers exposed the material to gram-negative bacteria, such as Salmonella, the wafers subtly changed color. However, exposure to gram-positive bacteria didn’t change the color, the researchers

report in an upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In this work, the scientists used a laboratory spectrometer to detect the color change, but they’re trying to create smaller devices for the analysis.

In related work, the team is identifying other molecules that bind to specific microbes with the goal of making a line of detectors for defending against specific bacterial threats. Within 6 months, Miller and his colleagues hope to have prototype handheld detectors for particular bacteria, he says.

The wafers could have many incarnations. If built into disposable bandages, for example, they might indicate which bacteria infect a wound, says Miller. Or food producers might add a detector chip to plastic wrap on meat and produce that could be scanned at checkout for signs of undesirable bacteria, he adds.

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