A process, and a benchtop-scale apparatus for implementing the process, have been developed to detect proteins associated with specific microbes in water. The process and apparatus may also be useful for detection of proteins in other, more complex liquids. There may be numerous potential applications, including monitoring lakes and streams for contamination, testing of blood and other bodily fluids in medical laboratories, and testing for microbial contamination of liquids in restaurants and industrial food-processing facilities. A sample can be prepared and analyzed by use of this process and apparatus within minutes, whereas an equivalent analysis performed by use of other processes and equipment can often take hours to days.

The process begins with the conjugation of near-infrared-fluorescent dyes to antibodies that are specific to a particular protein. Initially, the research has focused on using near-infrared dyes to detect antigens or associated proteins in solution, which has proven successful vs. microbial cells, and streamlining the technique in use for surface protein detection on microbes would theoretically render similar results. However, it is noted that additional work is needed to transition protein-based techniques to microbial cell detection. Consequently, multiple such dye/antibody pairs could be prepared to enable detection of multiple selected microbial species, using a different dye for each species. When excited by near-infrared light of a suitable wavelength, each dye fluoresces at a unique longer wavelength that differs from those of the other dyes, enabling discrimination among the various species.

In initial tests, the dye/antibody pairs are mixed into a solution suspected of containing the selected proteins, causing the binding of the dye/antibody pairs to such suspect proteins that may be present. The solution is then run through a microcentrifuge that includes a membrane that acts as a filter in that it retains the dye/antibody/protein complexes while allowing any remaining unbound dye/antibody pairs to flow away.

The retained dye/antibody/protein complexes are transferred to a cuvette, wherein they are irradiated with light from a miniature near-infrared laser delivered via a fiber-optic cable. The resulting fluorescence from the dye(s) is measured by use of a miniature spectrometer, the output of which is digitized, then analyzed by laptop computer. The software running in the computer identifies the protein species by the wavelengths of their spectral peaks and determines the amounts of the proteins, and thus, one day, microbes of the various species from the intensities of the peaks. The abovementioned removal of the unbound dye/antibody pairs during centrifugation prevents false positive readings. The process proves successful in detecting proteins in solution and thus can now be employed for use in microbe detection.

This work was done by Maximilian C. Scardelletti and Vanessa Varaljay of Glenn Research Center.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steve Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. Refer to LEW-18148-1.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2007 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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