In these tense times, the ability to continuously "sniff out" and detect dangerous biological agents anywhere, anytime is obviously in very high demand — for our troops on the battlefield, in our airports, at our ports, subways, stadiums, and any other space where large numbers of people gather. The quandary has been to build such a detector small and stable enough, that could be used more than once, and that could send an alert when in the presence of dangerous agents. To date, no such sensor has been built, and one is badly needed.
That may change soon.
"One of ONR's missions is to support science that is in the area of "fleet/force protection," says ONR's Dr. John Pazik, who funds the project. "Through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, ONR funded advancements in a stable, DNA-modified diamond film that – coupled with modern electronics on a silicon chip – would lead to an ability to better detect biological agents. Ultimately this might lead to an early warning system for defense against biological weapons." This remarkable new film is being developed by chemists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"We've done it," says Robert J. Hamers, professor of chemistry at UW-Madison. "And the hardest part — getting a stable platform for a chip that can be used for continuous monitoring, not just one-shot analysis — is over. We've proven that we can detect the electrical response when biomolecules bind to the diamond surface."
The sensor being developed will be about the size of a postage stamp and could be placed or sprinkled anywhere, acting like a "bio-cell phone," the developers say. These new sensors would detect biological molecules of interest and also take advantage of the signal amplification and processing properties of microelectronics. And, they would have a credible lifetime.
In the past, scientists tried in vain to develop surfaces with long-term stability for use as biosensors. Silicon, the material upon which computer chip technology rests, tended to defy efforts to harness it as a stable surface for sensing biological molecules. Other materials such as gold, glass and glassy carbon proved either unstable or difficult to integrate with silicon.
The biologically modified diamond films, doped with specific DNA, will be able to sense such things as anthrax, ricin, bubonic plague, smallpox and other molecules. Researchers predict that the diamond films will be available in a year.
*Funded also by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Hamers and colleague Lloyd Smith developed the chemistry for the new diamond surfaces, and with Dan van der Weide, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering, achieved the electronic sensing. The diamond film was made in the Naval Research Laboratory and the Argonne National Labs.
This story is being released in conjunction with a press release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison: Terry Devitt (608) 262-8282, firstname.lastname@example.org
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