Nanotech to detect waterborne biohazards

Space scientists from NASA are putting their expertise in cutting-edge nanotechnology to use in developing sensors to spot contamination in food and water.

The biosensor can spot potentially deadly bacteria, viruses and parasites associated with waterborne illnesses at very low levels.

“The biosensor makes use of ultra-sensitive carbon nanotubes which can detect biohazards at very low levels,” said Meyya Meyyappan, chief scientist for exploration technology and former director of NASA’s Centre for Nanotechnology.

“When biohazards are present, the biosensor generates an electrical signal, which is used to determine the presence and concentration levels of specific micro-organisms in the sample. Because of their tiny size, millions of nanotubes can fit on a single biosensor chip.”

NASA has licensed the device to private company Early Warning, whose officials say food and drink companies, water agencies, industrial plants, hospitals and airlines could use the biosensor to prevent outbreaks of illnesses caused by pathogens – without needing a laboratory or technicians.

“Biohazard outbreaks from pathogens and infectious diseases occur every day,” said Neil Gordon, president of Early Warning.

“The key to preventing major outbreaks is frequent and comprehensive testing for each suspected pathogen, as most occurrences of pathogens are not detected until after people get sick or die.

“Biohazards can enter the water supply and food chain from a number of sources which are very difficult to uncover.”

Early Warning expects to launch its water-testing products in late 2008.

“Ambitious space missions have produced some of the world’s most creative technologies by NASA and its industrial partners,” said Harry Partridge, deputy director of the Space Technologies Division at NASA’s Ames facility.

“Not only does NASA want these technologies used in space applications, an equally important objective is the transition of NASA research into real world products that can benefit our society.”

Sam Bond

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