Air Force calls for nanoparticle biothreat sensor

The U.S. Air Force is calling for the development of a nanoparticle-based sensor that is capable of detecting chemical and biological agents in real-time.

Currently, the military possesses a number of means of detecting chemical agents, from stationary detectors that monitor the air for toxic clouds to handheld devices that can travel along with a single soldier and warn of chemical exposure, according to Wired.

Detecting biological agents is much more difficult. Living organisms are more complex and take much longer to identify. Laboratory tests can often take hours, if not days, to confirm the presence of some biological agents, and that is assuming that the lab knows what it is looking for to begin with.

The sensor the Air Force is proposing is an entire system that would utilize bimolecular switches. These switches are constantly being turned on and off, controlling how we work at the cellular level and how we respond to our environment.

The sensor could enter living cells and complex environments and remain in an off state until exposure to a target leads to a signal, Wired reports. For example, nano-sized sensor particles would float around in the bloodstream until running into a toxic chemical or a disease causing germ. They would bind with the germ, which changes their shape, and then give off a reading that could be measured.

The Air Force claims that it would distribute such biosensors only when troops are likely to encounter dangerous chemical or biological agents. Ideally, the biosensors would be non-toxic and easily implantable when needed.