Baking powder or anthrax?
Ask the Ceeker
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – These
days, anyone who comes across a strange
white powder might like to know – as
quickly and as accurately as possible –
whether it is benign baking powder or
The Ceeker can help.
Pronounced “seeker,” the handheld
gadget was created by Veritide Ltd., which
develops biological identification and detection devices. It analyzes a suspicious
sample and, within minutes, can reveal
whether it contains bacterial spores. First
responders such as police and firefighters,
HazMat personnel, airport security, postal
workers and military units would benefit
most from the tool because they are more
likely than the general populace to encounter hazardous materials on the job.
“At the very beginning, when we came
up with the technology … it was very
clear to us … it was something that would
help a lot of people,” said Lou Reinisch,
professor of physics and head of the physical and Earth sciences department at
Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
Reinisch is the inventor of the technology
behind the device.
Drs. Andrew Rudge (left), CEO of Veritide Ltd., and
Lou Reinisch (right), inventor of the Ceeker’s optical
technology with the device.
With a push of a button, Veritide Ltd.’s Ceeker can
accurately analyze a sample in 10 minutes. Traditional methods involve sending the sample to a laboratory, where it takes two to three days before scientists can determine whether the substance is
anthrax or not. Images courtesy of Veritide Ltd.
Singling out spores
With just a push of a button, operators
can identify a substance. The equipment
uses fluorescence – ultraviolet light near
350 nm – to measure instances of dipicol-inic acid (DPA), a chemical compound
that makes up 5 to 15 percent of the dry
weight of bacterial spores. “This particular
compound is unique to all bacterial
spores,” Reinisch said.
Both DPA and calcium-DPA (CaDPA)
complex, which constitutes about 80 percent of DPA, can be identified with the
UV light. However, both composites are
weakly fluorescing, and photochemistry
must be applied to verify the presence of
hazardous matter. Because of this, a
shorter wavelength of light, near 250 nm,
is used to illuminate the sample, prompting photodissociation of a slight amount of
DPA and CaDPA. The exposure causes the
DPA to lose a carboxylic group and to
convert into picolinic acid – a more fluorescing fluorophore.
Another fluorescence test then is carried
out at 350 nm. This time, the Ceeker’s
software looks at and compares both
results to determine whether DPA and picolinic acid are present. “This gives the
absolute certainty that DPA was detected
and indicates that bacterial spores are
present,” Reinisch said.
Because there is no wet chemistry involved in the process, and no heat or ultrasound testing, the sample avoids damage,
and examination can continue. The equipment also can be tested for additional substances without delay. Each result is stored
for future reference, along with the equipment’s operational factors during testing.
“All information is archived in the device
and can be downloaded at a later date,” he
After a brief 10-minute analysis, a yes
or no answer is displayed on an LCD
screen positioned at the top of the device.
Current methods involve sending the sample to a laboratory, which can take up to a
few days for scientists to confirm the presence of toxins. The delay can negatively
affect a business because it must be shut
down during the investigation.
Nowhere to hide
During a two-week independent test run
at Midwest Research Institute in Palm
Bay, Fla., the detector accurately identified
100 percent of bacterial spores and 95 percent of hoax substances. Veritide said that
a sample size of only 3000 spores is required for an accurate readout, while other
detectors require at least 10,000 to 10 million spores for a valid result.
“Our detection level is well below the
estimated 10,000 spores (LD50) [lethal
dose 50 percent] it takes to infect someone,” Reinisch said. Furthermore, the
Ceeker can identify bacterial spores in wet
or dry samples, even if the substance is
mixed with contaminants such as dust or
He noted that anthrax threats or “white
powder incidents” occur in the US at least
20,000 times a year – or about 55 per day.
The Ceeker’s reliability and meticulousness may help to alleviate the threat in
many of these situations by immediately
informing first responders as to whether a
substance is anthrax or not.
Veritide is working on incorporating the
same technology to identify both Ricin
toxin, a white powder or liquid protein extracted from castor beans, and Botulinum
toxin, produced by the bacterium
Clostridium botulinum. The two also are frequently used as biological weapons.
Amanda D. Francoeur