Photo worth seeing: How drones detect pathogens

Photo worth seeing: How drones detect pathogens
This drone detects SARS-CoV-2 viruses. © Fio Omenetto, Tufts University SilkLab

Small but mighty! Scientists can use this drone to detect SARS-CoV-2 viruses in the air. The small propellers direct a flow of air through the body of the drone during flight. If it contains the virus particles that cause Covid-19, a light starts to shine. This is made possible by special sensors located on the fuselage of the flying object.

With this invention, they could save lives in the future: With these special sensors, the scientists at Tufts University in Massachusetts have developed a way of not only detecting SARS-CoV-2 viruses at an early stage, but also various other pathogens. They use an enzyme that is very similar to that of fireflies. This protein is coupled with molecules that bind selectively to specific parts of the virus. Once this binding has taken place, this activates the light-emitting protein. The intensity of the glow then reveals how high the concentration of the pathogen is in the area.

The sensors are constructed in such a way that they can be adapted at any time using newly developed proteins. As a result, they are able to reliably detect a wide range of pathogens both in the air and in the water, as the researchers explain. In addition to viruses and bacteria as well as dangerous chemicals, according to initial findings, they can even show indicators of breast cancer.

But the biosensors can not only be used in drones. Like ink, they can be printed on a variety of materials. “For example, you could make surgical masks that are capable of displaying pathogens,” said Luciana d’Amone of Tufts University. “We also showed that you can print the sensor in food packaging to detect spoilage and toxins. So many products that we use every day can be modified with these sensors.”

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