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Research improves detection of harmful pathogens

PULLMAN– A group of Washington State University researchers have developed a method that greatly improves and speeds up the detection of harmful pathogens in the environment.

In a paper published this month in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, the researchers, including Prashanta Dutta, assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and colleagues from the University of Akron, present an improved and more effective Coulter device, used for the detection of the tiny microbes.

The existing technique, which uses micro- or nano-pores to detect and separate particles, can only detect tiny volumes of material at a time in a single channel, limiting its effectiveness for detecting particles rapidly in large volumes. To detect harmful pathogens, samples currently have to be sent to a lab facility, and results take several hours.

The researchers, including graduate students in the WSU School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering Isaac Sprague and Talukdare Jubery, have been working on micro- and nano-scale bioparticle sensors that avoid the contamination of samples that has traditionally plagued the tiny detectors, allowing the use of multiple channels to do separations for the first time. The channels on the tiny microchip are only 50 microns wide and can detect particles, ranging from a single molecule to a single cell, within a large sample (up to five milliliters of liquid, for instance).

In particular, the research team was able to use the 4-channel system to detect tiny particles of pollen and polymethacrylate (PMA).

The device is made of plastic in a clean room, using techniques similar to those used in the production of computer microchips.

The researchers are continuing work to increase the number of sensing channels in their micro-chip for significant improvements in the detection of the harmful bioparticles.

They hope that the new system could someday allow detection of dangerous pathogens in food or the air, ranging from E-coli to anthrax, in minutes with a portable device. Because it can be mass produced, the detection device could also be significantly less expensive than devices that are currently used.

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