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Biodegradable 'napkin' could help quickly detect, identify biohazards

Detecting bacteria, viruses and other dangerous substances could soon be as simple as wiping a napkin or paper towel across a table, according to Cornell University researchers.

Once fully developed, the new absorbent wipe, embedded with nanofibers containing antibodies to numerous biohazards, could be used by virtually anyone to rapidly uncover pathogens in meat packing plants, hospitals, cruise ships, airplanes and other commonly contaminated areas, the researchers say.

The materials for this new process, which is still being tested in the laboratory, were described today at the 232nd national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

"It's very inexpensive, it wouldn't require that someone be highly trained to use it, and it can be activated for whatever you want to find," said Margaret Frey, Ph.D., Lois and Mel Tukman assistant professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell. "So if you're working in a meat packing plant, for instance, you could swipe it across some hamburger and quickly and easily detect E. coli bacteria." If biohazards were detected, she added, the area could be scoured and re-tested to confirm the contaminants were destroyed.

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In their experiments, Frey and her colleagues formed nanofibers with diameters between 100 nanometers and 2 microns (a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide). On these nanofibers, the researchers created platforms made of biotin, a B-vitamin and the protein streptavidin to hold the antibodies. The nanofibers, which are made of polyactide (PLA) - a polymer compound made from corn - can be used to make non-woven wipers or swabs. To reduce costs, the nanofibers also could be incorporated into conventional paper products.

"The fabric basically acts as a sponge that you can use to dip in a liquid or wipe across a surface," Frey said. "As you do that, antibodies in the fabric are going to selectively latch onto whatever pathogen that they match. Using this method we should, in theory, be able to quickly activate the fabric to detect whatever is the hazard of the week, whether it is bird flu, mad cow disease or anthrax."

For now, identifying the collected pathogens requires a separate analytical step. But Frey and colleagues are working on methods, such as color changes in the fabric, which would instantly identify the contaminant.

"We're probably still a few years away from having this ready for the real world," Frey said, "but I really believe there is a place for this type of product that can be used by people with limited training to provide a fast indication of whether a biohazard is present."

Michael Bernstein | EurekAlert!
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