Friday, 11 June 2004

Bugs In Space

University of Tennessee microbiologist Gary Sayler and his colleagues have developed a device that uses chips to collect signals from specially altered bacteria. The researchers have already used these devices, known as BBICs, or Bioluminescent Bioreporter Integrated Circuits, to track pollution on earth. Now, with the support of NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research, they're designing a version for spaceships.
What BBICs offer, explains Sayler, is a low-cost, low-energy way to detect pollutants. They're tiny: each BBIC is about 2 mm by 2 mm, and the entire device, including its power source, will probably be about the size of a matchbox, and they monitor their surroundings continuously.

NASA is interested in sensing contaminants because spaceships are tightly sealed. Unseen fumes from scientific experiments or toxins produced by molds and other biofilms can accumulate and pose a hazard to astronauts. BBICs can be crafted to sense almost anything: ammonia, cadmium, chromate, cobalt, copper, proteins, lead, mercury, PCBs, ultrasound, ultraviolet radiation, zinc--the list goes on and on.
And yet another small step in the convergence of biology and silicon.

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