Detecting biological threats top goal of UH project

at do not react to background clutter and cannot easily be evaded," Willson said. "These reagents should also have direct application to clinical diagnostics."

Along with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) primers, the new approach will deliver DNA probes that bind to organisms of interest and carry a highly detectable "label" to signal the presence of the organism. The PCR primers can amplify a specific sequence of DNA by as many as one billion times to reduce the amount of false positives, as well as resist evasion by threat agent engineering. The project focuses on choosing primers that detect, but don't mistakenly PCR-amplify, human or background-bacterial DNA. This advanced technology is a reality because of the UH team's insight into the statistical properties of useful probes, primer pairs and targets.

The ultimate goals of the research project are to improve future detection systems, efficiently detect engineered threats and to reduce the frequency of false positives. While false positives do not occur often, the UH research team agrees that taking precautions are necessary to avoid the chaos, mass anxiety and economic disruption that come with this type of misinformation.

"You don't want to have a test that says you might have anthrax in a sample, such as the air in a building or train station, when you don't," Fox said. "And since it's theoretically possible to use genetic engineering to disguise a threat from traditional detection methods that are based on single probes or primers, our approach realizes this and won't be fooled by it."


Contact: Lisa Merkl
University of Houston

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