NASA Spinoff

Sensors Provide Early Warning of Biological Threats

Product Outcome

Early Warning initially developed a working version of the NASA biosensor calibrated to detect the bacteria strain E. coli O157:H7, known to cause acute gastrointestinal illness. It also detects indicator E. coli, commonly used in water testing. In the process, the company worked out a method for placing multiple sensors on a single wafer, allowing for mass production and cost-effective testing. In April, at the 2009 American Water Works Association “Water Security Congress,” Early Warning launched its commercial Biohazard Water Analyzer, which builds upon the licensed NASA biosensor and can be configured to test for a suite of waterborne pathogens including E. coli, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and other bacteria, viruses, and parasitic protozoa. The analyzer uses a biomolecule concentrator—an Early Warning invention—to reduce a 10-liter water sample to 1 milliliter in about 45 minutes. The concentrated sample is then processed and fed to the biosensor. The entire process takes about 2 hours, a drastic improvement over typical laboratory-based water sampling, which can take several days to a week. The sensor operates in the field via a wired or wireless network and without the need for a laboratory or technicians, allowing for rapid, on-the-fly detection and treatment of potentially dangerous organic contaminants.

“The sensor is incredibly sensitive and specific to the type of pathogen it is calibrated to detect in the water,” says Gordon. “Instead of just detecting coliforms in the water that may or may not indicate the presence of pathogens, we will know if there are infectious strains of Salmonella, E. coli, or Giardia that could sicken or even kill vulnerable people if consumed.” (Coliform bacteria levels typically indicate water and food sanitation quality.)

The water analyzer has multiple applications, notes Gordon. Early Warning’s system can monitor recreational water quality at beaches and lakes, which can be contaminated by animal feces, farming activities, and infectious pathogens in human waste. Agricultural companies may use the analyzer to test feed water for cattle, and food and beverage companies may employ the sensor to ensure the purity of water used in their products. Health care organizations have expressed interest in using the analyzer to test water from showers and other potential sources of pathogens like Legionella, which causes the flu-like Legionnaires’ disease.

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Early Warning and Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, are collaborating on sensor enhancements such as improving the safety of imported produce. Since the skins of fruits and vegetables are potential sites of dangerous pathogens, inspectors could collect water sprayed on the produce and, using the analyzer, know within a few hours whether a particular shipment is contaminated. Last year, Kansas State was selected as the home for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which could also benefit Early Warning.

“We’re eager to show how the private sector, government agencies, and academia can work together to evolve this platform into products that benefit our citizens,” says Gordon. With an aging U.S. water and wastewater infrastructure, increasingly severe weather systems, global travel and food imports affecting the proliferation of disease-causing organisms, and more than 1 billion people worldwide without access to safe water (according to the World Health Organization), the fruits of this partnership may be more necessary than ever.