Battlefield DNA Sensors, 2040

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A soldier returning from the battlefield is unknowingly carrying a contaminant. But sensors embedded on a small electronic chip detect the harmful matter, alerting personnel to treat the soldier, potentially saving his life and avoiding harm to fellow troops. Such a scene could play out. Materials science and engineering Associate Professor Seong Jin Koh leads a team at work on tiny sensors that could detect the smallest DNA molecules of harmful biological species. “If some foreign agent has been put on a soldier, this sensor could detect it,” he says. “It could even be used in the battlefield to see what’s in that environment. It also could be used to test food supplies in the field.” Most existing DNA detection techniques are time-consuming, expensive, and not sensitive enough to indicate extremely low concentrations of DNA molecules. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Koh’s system is more efficient. “The sensor output is a simple electrical signal, and the sensors reside on a small silicon chip, allowing cost-effective fabrication and ease of use,” he says. “This technology could lead to many beneficial applications.” Like detecting gene mutations that would signal the early stages of cancer or enabling investigators to link perpetrators to a crime scene with the smallest of blood samples. “We know our concept is working. If it can be implemented, there are many immediate benefits for many companies and our society.”

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