Real-time detection of pathogens in the environment: How close are we?

tecting a pathogen--a disease-producing microorganism--is that researchers have to know the DNA signature of the microorganism. "You have to know what you're looking for in order to find it," said Newby. That's hard enough, but genetically engineered pathogens--microorganisms with DNA that has been modified to make it more virulent in some way--may not immediately appear different from normal microorganisms. "It's possible to spoof detection systems," said Newby.

Researchers have to know where to sample, the best way to sample, and how much to collect in order to get accurate results from analyses. And they've got to be able to discern when enough of a particular pathogen is present to trigger an outbreak. That can be complicated because many biological weapons have their genesis in very common organisms.

Ideally, analysis needs to be detailed enough to determine what strain of the pathogenic organism is present. That helps researchers differentiate a naturally occurring organism from one that has been genetically modified. Strain analysis also helps researchers to track the transmission of the organism as it is passed from one animal to another.

It's also challenging to detect the viability of the pathogen. For many pathogens, "If the organism is present, but not alive--it can't infect anyone anymore," said Newby. "If the organism is alive, however, the risk or threat of the pathogen is still active."

No analytical technique can beat culturing, the "gold standard" for identifying a microorganism. "But the lag time on cultured analytical results can range from hours to days," said Newby. Culturing is great for confirming the diagnosis of another technique, however.

Some detection systems--from hand-held analyzers to larger detectors--are showing promise, but still can't provide real-time analytical results. "The best systems out there still take at least 15 minutes per sample batch, assuming there's no sample preparation time,

Contact: Deborah Hill
DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

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