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Biological weapons unable to hide from Surrey scientists

In autumn 2001 letters containing white powder were posted to several addresses in Florida. The white powder was a form of anthrax and the attack resulted in the infection of several people and the death of five.

The cause of the attack was ascertained through blood tests of the victims, but that was only possible once they were already infected. Today we are all more aware of the dangers of biological weapons, but if we were to be subject to such an attack how would we quickly know whether it was a hoax or a biological threat. To tackle this problem scientists at the University of Surrey in a study sponsored by Smiths Detection have found a technique that may allow the authorities to identify biological agents more quickly and efficiently.

The problem in detecting harmful bacteria in the air is that it is mixed up with other non-biological pollutants such as diesel fumes. Until now it has been impossible to separate these non-biological particles from the bacteria which need to be tested, thus quick, accurate identification of bacteria is difficult. Dr Fatima Labeed and her team at the University of Surrey have used a unique form of the process called dielectrophoretic separation to correctly separate diesel particulates from those of an anthrax bacteria substitute. This process would enable the authorities to isolate the bacteria more quickly and therefore use the appropriate biosensing instruments to work out what form of bacteria had been released.

Whilst the process at this point has only been used to separate diesel particle from anthrax-like microorganisms, it is hoped that applications for other potentially dangerous biological materials may also be found. Dr Labeed comments. “Perhaps one day this technology could be as common as x-ray machines used in airports”

Stuart Miller | alfa
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