Gobble Gobble, A New Test for Toxins?

By GMU Biodefense graduate student, Blain Johnson

Do you find yourself reminiscing about the holidays, back when the bitter cold was mitigated by winter cheer? Cast your mind back to November. Every Thanksgiving millions of families sit down and eat a pleasant turkey dinner, after all, what would the holiday be without the signature dish in the center of the table? But what if you were told that turkeys are good for something other than eating?

A recent University of California Berkeley study has found that it is possible to create a sort of ‘plastic card’ that can be sample air to detect the presence of dangerous toxins or chemicals. The finding was inspired by the turkey, a bird whose skin color changes based on the level of stress around it. Inspired by this unique ability, researchers constructed a molecule, similar in shape to collagen, which contains a specific bacteriophage capable of self assembling into colorful, readable patterns if it detect a given toxin or chemical.

The Berkeley bioengineers tailored their virus to bind to specific sites on particles of TNT explosive. The result was that their new sensor could detect trace amounts of airborne TNT particles. Their development is the newest biosensor that, ironically, contains a living virus. Their bacteriophage can be genetically engineered to change color in the presence of any number of toxins, chemicals, and other viruses. While the discovery is an enormous breakthrough, the lead scientist, Dr. Seung-Wuk Lee, says she hopes to develop more sensitivity for the test in the coming months capable of producing even smaller measurements, such as  sugar levels in diabetic patients.

This new innovation goes beyond medicine; the ability to detect harmful toxins and chemicals is a major breakthrough in our ability to prepare for emergency situations and warn citizens of a possible disease outbreak or terrorist attack before it reaches a critical juncture. Imagine testing a room by waving a plastic card in the air and being able to definitively say the area is safe. This is an important discovery for the Emergency Management field and will hopefully lead to safer and more prepared communities.

So the next time you decide to eat a turkey sandwich, tell your nearest neighbor that you are eating a bird which inspired a  biosensor capable of detecting TNT at 300 parts per billion and see what they say.

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