UC Berkeley Professor Develops Toxin Detection System

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A UC Berkeley professor is working to create a portable chip capable of detecting biowarfare toxins in the field.

Over two years ago UC Berkeley chemistry professor Jean Frechet and researcher Frantisek Svec embarked on a project to develop a portable device capable of detecting chemical and biological toxins.

"Small concentrations of toxins can still be potentially harmful," Frechet said. "Accumulation causing increases in concentration can increase the toxicity, although some toxins have strong biological activities at small concentrations to begin with."

Although chemical techniques for toxin detection already exist, the goal was to make these techniques portable so that analyses can be made on site and potential contaminations can be caught early-before biowarfare agents reach their targets.

"Essentially this will be something that will do everything in a single, portable box," Svec said. "On one side you will drop a droplet of sample and on the other side you will get a display of the composition of that sample."

Eventually the chip will contain all three stages of chemical analysis-concentration, digestion and analysis.

"Imagine you have potentially harmful toxins somewhere, at low concentrations," Svec said. "The polymer in the microfluidic chip concentrates the toxins to a level where you can detect them."

The system is designed so that the compounds of interest will stick to it as liquid flows down a channel, concentrating the protein in the synthetic polymer.

After the toxin is concentrated to the point where it can be detected, another liquid is passed through to dissociate the toxin from the polymer. The liberated toxin can then flow freely and run through an enzymatic "trypsin reactor."

"The trypsin digests each protein into smaller peptides, shorter amino acid chains," Svec said.

A separate polymer inside the chip then separates these peptides according to molecular properties like size and charge.

"Each protein can then be fingerprinted by these smaller peptide chains," Svec said. "The number of toxic proteins is very limited, so you can easily detect which toxin it is from these peptide fingerprints."

The final component of the microfluidic chip would incorporate a computer chip capable of storing peptide fingerprint data and identifying the unknown toxin.


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