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Biology-Engineering Collaboration Improves Detection of Dangerous Microbes

Date: March 27, 2002
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News

A team of three faculty members in the College of Engineering and the department of biological sciences received National Science Foundation funding to pursue a novel technique for identifying microbes that are serious threats to public health and safety.

Dan Oerther

The $100,000 Exploratory Research grant is designed to support projects which have a high potential payoff, but are at an early "high-risk" stage of development. The faculty members working on the project are Daniel Oerther, assistant professor of environmental engineering; Ian Papautsky, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering; and Brian Kinkle, associate professor of biological sciences.

Together the researchers have developed a BioMEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) device which can easily and quickly detect the tiny bacterium which causes tuberculosis. "What we've been able to do is develop a device where we can get an initial identification in five minutes and a positive identification in 12 hours."

culture dish

There are several advantages to the BioMEMS approach. Miniaturization means investigators don't need to grow as many organisms as you would in a traditional lab culture approach. That saves time and money.

"The neat thing is we're developing this as a platform," noted Oerther. So, the handheld system could be adapted to search for a wide variety of organisms from Helicobacter pylori which causes ulcers to anthrax.

The researchers are already working with Richard Kordal, director of Intellectual Property at UC and Emerging Concepts, Inc. to explore the commercial possibilities for their prototype device.

Oerther is also excited about the opportunity to work as part of an interdisciplinary team in his first year at UC. "It's exciting to get NSF funding and get started all in the first year," said Oerther. "That speaks to the strength of having an interdisciplinary team."

Oerther said the system should be adaptable to air and water monitoring as well as medical applications. "In clinical settings, you have many organisms but only a few tests," explained Oerther, "but in an environmental setting, you have fewer organisms, but a huge number of tests to run."

So, it's important to develop methods which are both effective and economical. "You're not worried about the sexiness of the technique," said Oerther, noting that DNA tests can cost $100 per sample while culturing cells only costs about $5.

Ian Papautsky and Brian Kinkle

In a separate project, Oerther is also working on ways to identify microbes which can improve the treatment of wastewater by removing phosphorous and nitrogen compounds. Those elements act as fertilizers in the environment, leading to noxious algae blooms and other ecological problems.

"We're learning how to encourage these microbes to increase their growth in bioreactors," said Oerther. "It's a classical approach to optimize the system."

That project is a collaboration with fellow environmental engineers Makram Suidan and Paul Bishop.

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