NASA touts nanotech sensor as biohazard early warning system

NASA researchers have developed a nanotechnology-based biosensor that can detect trace amounts of specific bacteria, viruses and parasites. Products will appear later this year using the sensor, that will help prevent the spread of potentially deadly biohazards in water, food and other contaminated sources.

NASA's Ames Research Center licensed the biosensor technology to Early Warning under a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement and NASA and Early Warning jointly will develop biosensor enhancements. Initially, the biosensor will be configured to detect the presence of common and rare strains of microorganisms associated with water-borne illnesses and fatalities, NASA said.

Early Warning company officials say food and beverage 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 in the U.S. and throughout the world from Avian Influenza virus, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis viruses, Norovirus (Norwalk virus), Salmonella bacteria, Mycobacterim tubercolosis bacteria, Vibrio cholerae bacteria (cholera) and hundreds of other microorganisms, Early Warning states on its Web site.  Bacteria, viruses and parasites are responsible for the bulk of the 18.4 million deaths worldwide from communicable diseases in 2004 estimated by the World Health OrganizationThe biosensor employs ultra-sensitive carbon nanotubes which can detect biohazards at very low levels, NASA said.

"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," explained Meyya Meyyappan, chief scientist for exploration technology and former director of the Center for Nanotechnology at Ames.

NASA has done tons of work related to such biotechnologies. 

For example, a bacterial spore-detection system developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for cleaning Mars-bound spacecraft is now employed by Universal Detection Technology as an anthrax detection system. It requires very little in the way of operating costs, and has a high reliability factor, with low susceptibility to false alarms. The Anthrax Smoke Detector is in use worldwide in government buildings, offices, airports, convention centers, hotels, casinos, and postal facilities, according to NASA.

A mineral identification tool that was developed for NASA’s Mars Rover Technology Development program is now serving as a tool for U.S. law enforcement agencies and military personnel to identify suspicious liquid and solid substances. The tool can measure unknown substances through glass and plastic packaging materials. The device, a portable Raman spectrometer and fiber-optic probe that could be used on a Mars exploration rover, was designed by EIC Laboratories in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The commercial product, the InPhotote, is manufactured and distributed by InPhotonics Inc., a spinoff company of EIC Laboratories, NASA said.  

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