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Another step against bioterrorism

Israeli scientists working with the financial backing of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have developed a biochip that can detect toxic substances in drinking water. When the device will be available it will be the size of a credit card and will be able to analyze a water sample in less than ten minutes.

Shimshon Belkin, Professor of Applied Microbiology at the Hebrew University, and his team, have developed a biochip prototype which hosts living cells that can quickly assess the toxicity levels of drinking water. Professor Belkin presented the original idea to a team of U.S. army officials in the Pentagon on the 10th of September 2001. The next day, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked by unscrupulous terrorists.

Understanding the possibility of future attacks using biological agents against water supplies across the U.S., DARPA agreed to back Belkins research with 3.5 million dollars. A year later the first successful experiment took place. The problem with existing toxins detection systems is that although they are very good in detecting specifically known contaminators, in today's high-tech terrorist age, it is not too difficult to create new toxins and use them to contaminate a water supply. Since today there is no system that can identify any potential toxin, Professor Belkins revolutionary biochip is a strong new weapon in the war against bioterrorism.

Prof. Shimshon Belkin

The new biochip is based on a novel idea. Instead of trying to analyze a sample to determine which toxins it includes, the biochip uses living cells that, like the body itself, respond whenever they are attacked. The biochip doesn't need to perform complex operations on each water sample nor does it give indication as to the nature of the toxins. All it does is to provide an answer to the question of the level of the water contamination. The living cells inside the biochip were genetically engineered to react to contaminated water by emitting light, in a similar way to that done by fireflies. Special receptors on the chip absorb the light and a computer algorithm has been designed to analyze the amount of light emitted and determine the contamination level.

The current size of the biochip prototype and its supporting units is rather large and it weighs a hefty five kilograms. After completing the basic development and proving the idea works, the mission now is to reduce the size of the finished product to a few centimeters and several grams thus allowing the detector to be carried in a shirt pocket of any field operative that will allow him to perform a water toxicity test on site at any time.

With the success of Belkins research, DARPA is now interested in expanding the capability of the detector to identify contaminates in all kinds of environments. This idea had been presented to a group of DARPA officials on a recent visit to Ben-Gurion University in the Israeli Negev. The idea is to create a small pen-like detector that will be able to identify contaminates in water, blood, saliva and other fluids. This device will be of great value to medical people working in potentially hazardous environments to immediately assess the danger level without performing complicated and lengthy laboratory tests.

Iddo Genuth

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