Lab-on-a-chip shows promise in preventing bioterrorism

May 26 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Kristiane Roe Hammer, London.

An EU-funded research has developed a chip that can screen water for biological pathogens. The tiny chip renders slow laboratory analysis unnecessary and old-fashioned. This type of screening could prevent or severely limit the effects of a potential bio-attack on drinking water supplies. With the chip ready what they need now are buyers.

The project, named DINAMICS (short for ‘diagnostic nanotech and microtech sensors’), involves researchers from twelve institutes in eight different European countries and has been co-funded by the European commission. It started up in 2007, after fear of a potential terrorist attack on water supplies. Four years and €7.14m later the project has developed a prototype that recognizes and binds pathogenic DNA from water samples. 

According to the European research media centre Youris, the project has developed two different ways of reading the pathogenic DNA. One is by applying chemiluminescence to make the bound DNAs emit light that can be interpreted by a computer. The other turns the bound DNAs into electric signals. With this method it is also possible to measure intensity, as the signals’ magnitude will be proportional to the concentration of pathogenic DNA in the water sample.
The project team likes to refer to their sensor as a ‘lab-on-a-chip’ since the technology can get the same information from the water sample that complete laboratory analysis would have to provide today. If the chip is used, monitors do not longer need to send the sample to a laboratory. The analysis is instant. Undeniably, this will save time, resources and money. The civilian medical industry has showed great interest in the project, and the chip will soon be commercialized for use in medical diagnosis. In addition, the chip has the potential to be fully networked: the system could also be set up so authorities receive an alert through e-mail or a text message if the water samples are abnormal.
Other institutes are also getting into water monitoring. Oregon State University, carrying out a grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, have reported the successful use of magnetic nanobeads to detect chemical or biological agents. The device is reportedly hand-held and 1,000 times smaller than those now being used in common diagnostic tests. At the Fraunhofer institute in Germany they have developed what they call the AquaBio Tox. The bio-sensor senses dangerous material in water through recording the behaviour of microorganisms in a ‘box’ with a sensitive camera. The microorganisms have been adjusted to produce a protein that has red fluorescence, this changes when it meets with toxic substances.
A successful terrorist attack on our water supplies using a biological agent could have disastrous effects. However, project coordinator Christian Mittermayer says, in a conversation with VERTIC, that the drinking water industry is not showing much interest in the project, presumably because there is no regulatory pressure to monitor the drinking water.
Scientists have considered a potential bio-attack on water supplies as unlikely because of the challenge in getting high enough concentrations of the pathogens in the water. And as most biological agents are living organisms and therefore sensitive, most would not survive the purification processes the water goes through before it reaches the kitchen tap. But as these new ‘lab-on-a-chip’ devices are small, mobile and easy to use out in the field, it could be a great help for first responders in cases where there is suspicion of an attack with a biological weapon. Fast, reliable and quantifiable on-the-spot recognition and detection sounds promising and inviting in any case.
If the parties to the Biological Weapons Convention decides to re-open the verification file, and wants to explore ways to conduct environmental monitoring, this technology is one to keep an eye on.


Last changed: May 26 2011 at 1:06 PM