NASA Spinoff

Sensors Provide Early Warning of Biological Threats

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are between 4 and 11 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the United States each year—caused by pathogens in public drinking water. The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella have within the past few years contaminated spinach and tomato supplies, leading to nationwide health scares. Elsewhere, waterborne diseases are devastating populations in developing countries like Zimbabwe, where a cholera epidemic erupted in 2008 and claimed over 4,000 lives.

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Scientists have found an unexpected source of inspiration in the effort to prevent similar disasters: the search for life on Mars. The possibility of life on the Red Planet has been a subject of popular and scientific fascination since the 19th century. While Martian meteorites have turned up controversial hints of organic activity, and NASA’s exploratory efforts have delivered important discoveries related to potential life—the presence of water ice, and plumes of methane in Mars’s atmosphere—direct evidence of organisms on our closest planetary relative has yet to be found.

alt In order to help detect biological traces on Mars, scientists at Ames Research Center began work on an ultrasensitive biosensor in 2002. The chief components of the sensor are carbon nanotubes, which are the major focus of research at the Center for Nanotechnology at Ames—the U.S. Government’s largest nanotechnology research group and one of the largest in the world. Tubes of graphite about 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, carbon nanotubes can be grown up to several millimeters in length and display remarkable properties. They possess extreme tensile strength (the equivalent of a cable 1 millimeter in diameter supporting nearly 14,000 pounds) and are excellent conductors of heat and electricity.

It is the nanotubes’ electrical properties that Ames researchers employed in creating the biosensor. The sensor contains a bioreceptor made of nanotubes tipped with single strands of nucleic acid of waterborne pathogens, such as E. coli and Cryptosporidium. When the probe strand contacts a matching strand from the environment, it binds into a double helix, releasing a faint electrical charge that the nanotube conducts to the sensor’s transducer, signaling the presence of the specific pathogens found in the water. Because the sensor contains millions of nanotubes, it is highly sensitive to even minute amounts of its target substance. Tiny, requiring little energy and no laboratory expertise, the sensor is ideal for use in space and, as it turns out, on Earth as well.

Partnership

“Carbon nanotubes are the wonder material of nanotechnology,” says Neil Gordon, president of Early Warning Inc., based in Troy, New York. “The opportunity was ripe to put that technology into a product.” Gordon encountered the director of the Center for Nanotechnology, Meyya Meyyappan, at a number of industry conferences, and the two discussed the possible terrestrial applications of NASA’s biosensor. In 2007, Early Warning exclusively licensed the biosensor from Ames and entered into a Space Act Agreement to support further, joint development of the sensor through 2012.