By Jane Cook
July 5, 2021
Almost everyone is familiar with the uncomfortable process of a nasal or oral swab to collect a sample for a COVID-19 test. But what if simply breathing into your mask could tell you whether or not you were sick?
Wearable biomolecule Sensors
New research by Peter Nguyen et. al. published in Nature Biotechnology describes technology for wearable biomolecule sensors, including a face mask that detects SARS-CoV-2 RNA in the wearer’s breath.
The tech falls under the umbrella of “synthetic biology,” the discipline of carefully engineering biological systems and reactions to perform certain tasks. What makes this latest research so intriguing is that it doesn’t rely on the traditional methods using living cells, but instead uses a freeze-dried biological reaction that is water activated.
These freeze-dried, cell-free (FDCF) systems contain everything needed for complex biological reactions, even processes like transcription and translation of engineered DNA.
In the SARS-CoV-2-detecting mask, a reaction first occurs to burst the viral membrane, followed by a reaction to amplify a gene unique to the virus. Then at a high enough concentration, the viral genetic material activates a CRISPR-based Cas12a system that cleaves another DNA probe.
A final sensor can detect if the probe is cleaved or not and will change color if probe cleavage has occurred, indicating the presence of SARS-CoV-2. The visible sensor can be placed inside the mask to provide a result while protecting the wearer’s confidentiality.
Detecting biomarkers in a patient’s breath has historically been challenging, so this more straightforward, wearable biosensor approach could have wide-ranging applications.
For this tech to work, however, the most abundant, most unique, or most easily detectable biomolecule in the breath (for the condition of interest) has to be identified first – a challenging task that will require collaboration between biologists and bioinformaticians!