Electronic Design

Pathogen Sensing

Hidden arms, explosives, and other goods in cargo pose a serious threat. But dangerous pathogens also can be devastating, making their detection a top priority for homeland security.

Shortly after the anthrax scare of 2001, the U.S. Postal Service engaged Cepheid Inc. to install nearly 2000 GeneXpert units for anthrax detection. The unit not only detects anthrax spores, it also can detect viruses that contain DNA from smallpox or RNA from Ebola. It, too, can detect ricin if it's in a crude extract containing DNA.

As an alternative, Universal Detection Co. created the BSM-2000 for anthrax detection.The company claims the unit is faster and less expensive than other systems. And unlike the GeneXpert, it doesn't require a cartridge replacement. Nevertheless, the GeneXpert is used extensively throughout the postal system, has performed flawlessly with no false-positive results.

Researchers at Auburn University are developing polyclonal antibody immobilized magnetoresistive biosensors to detect salmonella thyphimurium. Also, Florida State University researchers teamed up with Infosense Technologies and Research Inc. to develop a cyber-assisted autonomous biochemical neutralization system. In fact, they've already demonstrated a model for such a system (see the figure).

This cyber system points to the need for networking various sensor platforms located at different sites for maximum benefits. That's the thrust of a prototype system under development at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Its SensorNet integrates a 911 dispatch system with sensors, alarms, and video surveillance to speed up the response to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats or attacks. The system is being tested at the U.S. Army's Fort Bragg, N.C., base. Funds for the five-year project come from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

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