Sustainably sourced microbial nanowires as chemical tracers takes health monitoring to the next level

March 16, 2023 | Biotechnology

University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) - A group of scientists searched and wondered for a technology that could sniff out a wide range of medical conditions. To make this breakthrough, senior authors and professors, Derek Lovley and Jun Yao looked to human noses as their basis for the mechanism.

Human noses contain hundreds of sensitive receptors that are responsive to one specific molecule, making them more efficient than any device that could be chemically or mechanically engineered. Rather than relying on synthetic material, Lovley and Yao decided to leverage on the biological design of the nose itself. 

Their research began with a common bacteria, Geobacter sulfurreducens, that has an astounding capability to grow electrically conductive nanowires that are 10,000 times thinner than human hair. Since this bacterium is difficult to use at scale, they took out the ‘nanowire gene’ called pilin, and spliced it into the DNA of Escherichia coli. They later tweaked it to include a specific peptide, DLESFL, which is extremely responsive to ammonia - a chemical often associated with the breath of those with kidney disease. After the bacterium produced nanowires, the researchers harvested it and built them into a sensor. These microbe-produced nanowires as sensors are better performing compared to the traditional silicon or metal nanowires.

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Odoo text and image block

The scope need not only include ammonia. Toshiyuku Ueki, co-lead author and research professor in microbiology, stated that designing unique peptides that specifically bind to a tracer molecule given off by people afflicted with a disease is possible. This meant making a sensor that includes hundreds of chemical-sniffing nanowires good for monitoring all sorts of health conditions.

This study is a major success in green technology and provides a fundamentally new direction for electrical engineering. Compared to traditional nanowires, these microbe-produced nanowires are far more sustainable as they are organic and biodegradable.

Using life’s genetic design to build stable, versatile, low-impact and cost-effective platforms which provide healthcare professionals with tools to determine potential health complications is indeed a practical approach. 

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