Weapons detector

Researchers at Griffith University are developing a hand-held device that can rapidly detect viruses and bacteria ranging from biological weapons to bird flu in a matter of hours.


Led by Associate Professor Igor Agranovski, of the Griffith School of Engineering, the project uses a belt-mounted sampler about the size of a personal stereo in combination with DNA/RNA fingerprinting lab technology.


This reduces the time to detect and identify airborne biological agents from around two to five days to just two hours.


The researchers’ next goal is to speed-up the detection process even further, by miniaturising the technology so primary detection could be rapidly carried out on the spot inside the pocket-sized device.


Various device development stages were funded by the Australian Research Council, National Institute of Health (USA) and National Security Science and Technology Unit (Australian Government).


The engineering team worked with microbiologists in Queensland and Russia to refine the device. Recent findings have just been published in the most recent International Journal of Environmental Microbiology.


Associate Professor Agranovski said the device samples air, trapping the sample in tiny bubbles within a liquid medium.


The sample is then analysed using lab technology called real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR/RT-PCR), a method of DNA/RNA fingerprinting that enables a small sample of microbial DNA/RNA to be quickly and selectively identified and replicated for study.


‘The advantage of this arrangement is that it enables fast detection, but if a particular pathogen in the air is detected, the remaining collecting liquid from the sampler can be further analysed by more accurate and time-consuming methods to estimate the number of infectious and live micro-organisms in the atmosphere,’ he said.


Associate Professor Agranovski said there was massive potential for the technology to quickly identify the presence of airborne diseases such as bird flu in an agricultural setting, or testing for dangerous biological agents that may have been released deliberately as a weapon, or accidentally.


‘There was clearly a need for the development of rapid analytical procedures to meet the expectations of anti-terrorist and defence units, public health and agriculture specialists,’ he said.