How do drones detect pathogens –
This drone detects SARS-CoV-2 viruses. © Fio Omenetto, Tufts University Silk Lab

Small but mighty! Scientists can use this drone to detect SARS-CoV-2 viruses in the air. Small fans direct the airflow through the body of the drone while it is in flight. If it contains particles of the virus that causes Covid-19, the light begins to brighten. This is made possible by special sensors located on the fuselage of the flying object.

With this invention, they can save lives in the future: Using these special sensors, scientists at Tufts University in Massachusetts have developed a method to detect not only SARS-CoV-2 viruses at an early stage, but also many other pathogens. They use an enzyme that is very similar to the enzyme of the fireflies. This protein associates with molecules that selectively bind to specific parts of the virus. Once this binding occurs, the light-emitting protein becomes active. The intensity of the glow then reveals how high the pathogen concentration is in the area.

The sensors are constructed in such a way that they can be adapted at any time using newly developed proteins. As a result, they are able to reliably detect a wide range of pathogens in air and water, the researchers explain. In addition to viruses and bacteria as well as dangerous chemicals, according to preliminary results, they can even show signs of breast cancer.

But biosensors cannot only be used in drones. Like ink, it can be printed on a variety of materials. “For example, you can make surgical masks that are able to show pathogens,” said Luciana Damon of Tufts University. “We also showed that you can print the sensor into food packaging to detect spoilage and toxins. Many products we use every day can be modified with these sensors.”


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