A first step to rapid anthrax detection in tap water has been made

A first step to rapid anthrax detection in tap water has been made

Terrorists face a new adversary: chemists. US researchers have found a quick way to detect anthrax spores in water supplies.

William Heineman and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati developed their ’ultra-sensitive rapid detection method’ to spot traces of Bacillus globigii (BG) spores, which are used to simulate B. anthracis, or anthrax spores.

The group first optimised their bead-based immunoassay detection system for BG spores in a controlled, buffered water system. To make detection more relevant they needed to see if their system would work on so-called finished water, so used Cincinnati tap water.

After optimising the technique and applying it to finished water, the immunoassay could be performed completely in 30 minutes. Subsequently, real-time fluorescence spectroscopy could detect the BG spores in less than a minute.

Current US government guidelines on homeland security encourage scientists to be cautious in promoting work that could give terrorists information to use in a potential attack.

Heineman and his colleagues declined to comment on their work. Alistair Hay, an expert in chemical weapons and environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, UK, offered his opinion about their technique. While conceding that this is just a first step, he believes that ’it is a very helpful development’, adding that ’detection limits for the organism in water probably need to improve by some three to four orders of magnitude to detect concentrations which may be capable of causing intestinal anthrax.I anticipate assays becoming much more sensitive and I welcome this first step.’

Katharine Sanderson

S Farrell, H B Halsall and W R Heineman, Analyst, 2005(DOI: 10.1039/b413652g)