Technology That Can Do Everything

Biosensors are detection devices with endless applications from sustainable farming to bomb detection. Dr. Omowunmi Sadik, Professor of Bio-Analytical and Environmental Chemistry at State University of New York Binghamton joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss some of the new applications of biosensors.

TRANSCRIPT

Biosensors are detection devices with endless applications, from sustainable farming to bomb detection.

Joining us to discuss some of the new applications of biosensors is Dr. Omowunmi Sadik, professor of bioanalytical and environmental chemistry at State University of New York, Binghamton.

Thanks for joining us.

First, let's just get a definition.

What's a biosensor?

A biosensor is a small-sized device that has a biological component and some sort of transducer which is electronic.

Mm-hmm.

And so we try to mimic the natural sensing in the body like the tongue or the nose or even the skin, and we try to create a very small-sized device that can either sense chemical sensors or pain in the body or even tell you the safety of your food.

Okay, so give me an example of how some biosensors that might already be in the marketplace that we're not aware of.

A very common biosensor is the glucose detector, so you can buy that at CVS, and you look -- That's what diabetic patients...

Take a blood sample and know what the sugar level is, right?

...blood sample.

You just prick your finger, and it tells you the level of glucose in the blood within a few minutes.

Okay, so what are some more complicated ones?

How are they working in the fields of bomb detection?

So in the field of bomb detection, the interest may be to look at the chemical like sarin or VX, and so you again find a chemical selective layer that will be sensitive to the components in the bomb.

Mm-hmm.

And it will give you an immediate response, and so we have to engineer the chemistry as well as the electronics for the detection to give you a quick answer.

And you're also working on incorporating biosensors in the agricultural spaces.

Explain that.

So we have been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a very cheap low-cost sensor on paper that smallholder farmers can use to detect the presence of pathogens like fungi in the crops, and so some pathogens actually lower the productivity by more than 70 percent, and for smallholder farmers that's a big deal.

Okay, so a farmer would have what in their hands when they go out into the field, or when would they use a sensor like this?

So they will use a sensor like this to detect or tell them the presence of this fungi pre-planting...

Mm-hmm.

...post-planting, even before crop is taken out to the field.

So if they know that this fungus is out there in the field, don't plant there...

Don't plant.

...because it's going to eat your crops anyway.

Exactly.

So you look in the soil.

You look in the foliage.

You look in the crops.

Right now we have the sensor.

We're working to be able to get them to see the answers from their cellphones.

Cellphone is so ubiquitous now.

Anybody can -- Even farmers, we've spoken to farmers in Jamaica going out in the field, and they rarely have cellphone.

Right, so it's what, a sheet of paper that would have a lot of these sensors on it?

It's a paper strip just like you have with the diabetic monitor.

Yeah.

It's a paper strip, and we have the chemistry worked out on the paper, so this slip simply takes some samples of soil...

Mm-hmm.

...swell it in water and dip our paper, and that is linked onto the cellphone, and that gives them the nice.

So instead of blood on a strip of paper, it's basically the soil on the strip of paper?

The soil on the strip of paper until you just mix it with water.

So it's almost like a lock and a key where you're finding something that is going to automatically react with the thing that you're looking for, right?

That's actually the principal behind it.

For example, we have, if you're looking at the fungi, so we have sugars that are selected for the fungi of interest.

Mm-hmm.

And so they're locking, they're recognizing the same way that if microbes get into the human body, they have... You know, the fungi will have sugar selectins.

Mm-hmm.

So the sugars recognize the selectins.

There's a lock-and-key principal that takes place, and that essentially gives you a sense of what's going on.

We can use nanoparticles to do the detection, or we can use colorful chloroform that will be changing color, and that is now sent into the cellphone, and that gives you this smiley face.

Now, you also cofounded the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.

What does that do?

So the Sustainable Nanotechnology was essentially a way for me to put my passion into real life.

It's an organization.

It's a not-for-profit organization.

It's an international professional body, and the purpose essentially is to take -- create the sustainability to develop, the sustainability of nanotechnology in research, in education, in outreach, so we have a whole body of scientists and engineers coming together and discussing, you know, the state of the science and where we should be going.

Tell me kind of on the horizon, you know, right now, for us it would be kind of news and interesting and new for us to say, 'Oh, wow, she's created a strip that a farmer can use.'

15 years from now, 20 years from now, where do you see biosensors going?

How do you see the world transformed?

I see the biosensor field continuing to be smaller and relatively not as huge in terms of the development, so we want it to be microscopic, so it would not be impossible for us to put a biosensor in our pocket or just like a strip, and I can record virtually anything.

Rather than having a huge instrumentation at the airport where we have to go through, everything will just be so microscopic and minuscule.

So anything that speeds up the airport process I'm a fan of, so you're saying that we would be able to detect a chemical presence on a person's body just by something that we could stick on them instead of a magnetometer that we have to walk through today?

That's correct.

Wow.

Okay, and what about in sort of the hospital sphere, you know, because they're constantly doing, if you're in the hospital, they're doing tests to see if there are infections that have gotten worse and better.

How do you see biosensors working?

We see biosensor actually creating inroads into the medical field.

You know, we have all of these methicillin-resistant bacteria, microbes, and, you know, there are sensors that can be used for that right now in the market.

I think the challenge is the transition.

You know, people are kind of resistant to really adopt new technology.

I have just been funded by the National Science Foundation to what they call the Innovative Corps Program, and that program really allows us to go and speak with customers which is what scientists really do.

Yeah.

We want to know exactly what is the pinpoint?

What do they need?

How do they want this technology to work for them?

And we then go back and essentially create value for them based on their need.

It's called customer discovery.

All right.

Omowunmi Sadik from sunny Binghamton, thanks for much for joining us today.

Thank you very much for having me.