Better Red Than Dead; March 1997; Scientific American Magazine; by Zorpette; 1 Page(s)
In the eternal struggle between humans and microbes, certain toxic strains of Escherichia coli are the special forces of the bacteria world. Swift and potentially deadly, they produce toxins that cause intense intestinal distress, severe dehydration and internal bleeding. No treatment has been proved consistently effective against the disease, public health officials say. And at present, no specific, convenient test is routinely used to detect the bacteria, which kill as many as 200 people every year in the U.S. alone. To test for the bacteria, samples that have been taken from food or from a patient who may be afflicted must be cultured for 24 or more hours, after which the harmful organisms can be detected with microscopes or special dyes.
An invention at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory promises to change all that. Researchers in the lab¿s Biomolecular Materials Program have created an advanced thin-film biomaterial that functions as a litmus test for the bacteria. The plastic strips, which researchers say could be produced for less than a penny apiece, instantly change from blue to red in the presence of any toxic strain of E. coli. "It could change the rules of the game," asserts Jeffery Kahn, a laboratory spokesperson.