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July 17, 2020

Toxin Tester

A new handheld technology uses cell-free synthetic biology to test for 17 contaminants, costs pennies and takes minutes to work. Developed by a team led by researches at Northwestern University, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

'Taste' tubes.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Testing water for nasty contaminants is usually costly, requires a lab, and can take weeks to get an answer. Not the most practical especially in underdeveloped areas. A new handheld device from a team led by Northwestern University can test for 17 pollutants almost instantly for just pennies and a few drops of water. (Sound effect: drip!)

Easy as a pregnancy test, it's got tiny test tubes, each containing a freeze-dried pellet. Add a drop of water to each tube and flick it to start a reaction. Each tube IDs a different contaminant. If it exceeds EPA standards, it lights up green (Sound effect: bling!) in just minutes.

Advanced as our taste buds are, (Sound effect: slurp!) There are toxins we cannot taste. But bacteria can. (Sound effect: cartoon bacteria: "bleahh! Ptui!") Using cell-free synthetic biology, the researchers remove the bacteria's molecular 'taste buds', (Sound effect: "hey!") Freeze-dry them (Sound effect: freeze dry sound), and put 'em to work in the tubes, re-wired to produce the (Sound effect: bling!) visual signal.

It's called, "RNA Output Sensors Activated by Ligand [līɡ´ ənd] INDuction." "Rosalind" for short. A double meaning: A shout out to Rosalind Franklin, the woman who discovered the DNA double helix alongside Watson and Crick, that eventually made this technology possible.

(Sound effect: water poured into glass) I raise my water bottle to 'pure' genius.

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