Dr. Adrian Ponce joined JPL/NASA as a postdoctoral scholar in 2000 after receiving a Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech. In 2002 he invented the Anthrax Smoke Detector, a device capable of detecting the presence of anthrax in less than fifteen minutes. He recently developed a new technology called Germinable Endospore Biodosimetry, which not only rapidly detects the presence of bacterial spores on spacecraft but also determines whether they are alive or dead. Dr. Ponce currently serves as Deputy Manager of NASA JPL’s Planetary Science Section, and heads up the Ponce Research Group, an interdisciplinary team made up of researchers from JPL and California Institute of Technology.
NASA Tech Briefs: Dr. Ponce, how long have you been with NASA and what prompted you to pursue a career with them as opposed to, say, a pharmaceutical firm or a commercial research laboratory?
Dr. Adrian Ponce: Well, I’ve been with NASA since 2000 when I started as a postdoc after my graduate work at Caltech. I had always been interested in, and fascinated by, space exploration, you know, looking at books and things as a kid. At some point in my graduate work at Caltech, I saw a lecture on life in extreme environments and astrobiology, and I had been working in the subbasement of a laser lab for three or four years at that time and really got to see that big, shiny object in the sky we call the Sun, and doing research out in the field was fascinating to me. So, I saw an opportunity – an advertisement for a postdoc – and I applied and got into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory starting around January 2000.
Compared to pharmaceuticals and other commercial research laboratories, I guess NASA strikes an interesting balance between application and academic research and that’s, I think, what drew me to them – the combination of space exploration and working in the research environment. I think that was what ultimately caught my interest.
NTB: Back in 2002 you invented something called an Anthrax Smoke Detector. Tell us about that project.
Dr. Ponce: Shortly after I got started at JPL, I learned about this issue of bacterial spores and planetary protection – how do we make sure that spacecraft are clean before we send them to Mars or other places? That’s what planetary protection is all about. I was introduced to this question and bacterial spores and started working on how do we detect spores quicker, with a better way. Being a chemist, I came up with a way.
Shortly after I’d started working on that project for planetary protection, 9-11 happened and, subsequently, the anthrax attacks happened shortly thereafter. I realized right then, basically, that the technology that I was developing for detecting spores for planetary protection could easily be coupled with an air sampler so that we could essentially build what we call the Anthrax Smoke Detector.
NTB: You recently developed a new technology called Germinable Endospore Biodosimetry that can detect the presence of bacterial endospores. How does this new technology work?
Dr. Ponce: Right. With the Anthrax Smoke Detector what we were doing was we were detecting whether or not spores were there. What this new technology does, by looking at whether or not spores are germinable, we can basically use germinability as an indicator of whether the spores are alive or dead. So, with this new method we can figure out whether or not the spores are alive, or whether or not they’ve just been killed, and that’s really important because, as you know, hygiene and sterility are very important in the hospital arena, and for food preparation areas, and for biological defense. After a biological attack, how do you know if the pathogen has been activated?
Well, it turns out that spores are the toughest form of life on Earth, and if you can show that you’ve killed spores – bacterial spores, or endospores – then you can assume all pathogens and anything else that you might be worried about has been killed as well. So, by developing a method that can determine rapidly and in an automated way whether or not spores are viable, alive, or dead, we can guess, very rapidly now, whether or not a sterilization regimen is effective. So, if you’re cleaning a surface, or if you’re fumigating the senate building after an anthrax attack, for example, how do you know that the sterilization was effective? Well, with our method you can very rapidly prove that sterility has been achieved.