CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Thesedays, anyone who comes across a strangewhite powder might like to know – asquickly and as accurately as possible –whether it is benign baking powder ordeadly anthrax.
The Ceeker can help.
Pronounced “seeker,” the handheldgadget was created by Veritide Ltd., whichdevelops biological identification and detection devices. It analyzes a suspicioussample and, within minutes, can revealwhether it contains bacterial spores. Firstresponders such as police and firefighters,HazMat personnel, airport security, postalworkers and military units would benefitmost from the tool because they are morelikely than the general populace to encounter hazardous materials on the job.
“At the very beginning, when we cameup with the technology … it was veryclear to us … it was something that wouldhelp a lot of people,” said Lou Reinisch,professor of physics and head of the physical and Earth sciences department atJacksonville State University in Alabama.Reinisch is the inventor of the technologybehind the device.
Singling out spores
With just a push of a button, operatorscan identify a substance. The equipmentuses fluorescence – ultraviolet light near
350 nm – to measure instances of dipicol-inic acid (DPA), a chemical compoundthat makes up 5 to 15 percent of the dryweight of bacterial spores. “This particularcompound is unique to all bacterialspores,” Reinisch said.
Both DPA and calcium-DPA (CaDPA)
complex, which constitutes about 80 per-
cent 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, prompt-
ing 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 fluo-
Another fluorescence test then is carriedout at 350 nm. This time, the Ceeker’ssoftware looks at and compares bothresults to determine whether DPA and picolinic acid are present. “This gives theabsolute certainty that DPA was detectedand indicates that bacterial spores arepresent,” 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 storedfor future reference, along with the equipment’s operational factors during testing.“All information is archived in the deviceand can be downloaded at a later date,” hesaid.
After a brief 10-minute analysis, a yesor no answer is displayed on an LCDscreen positioned at the top of the device.Current methods involve sending the sample to a laboratory, which can take up to afew days for scientists to confirm the presence of toxins. The delay can negativelyaffect a business because it must be shutdown 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 per-
cent of hoax substances. Veritide said that
a sample size of only 3000 spores is re-
quired for an accurate readout, while other
detectors require at least 10,000 to 10 mil-
lion spores for a valid result.
“Our detection level is well below theestimated 10,000 spores (LD50) [lethaldose 50 percent] it takes to infect someone,” Reinisch said. Furthermore, theCeeker can identify bacterial spores in wetor dry samples, even if the substance ismixed with contaminants such as dust ordirt.
He noted that anthrax threats or “whitepowder incidents” occur in the US at least20,000 times a year – or about 55 per day.The Ceeker’s reliability and meticulousness may help to alleviate the threat inmany of these situations by immediatelyinforming first responders as to whether asubstance is anthrax or not.
Veritide is working on incorporating the
same technology to identify both Ricin
toxin, a white powder or liquid protein ex-
tracted from castor beans, and Botulinum
toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostrid-
ium botulinum. The two also are fre-
quently used as biological weapons.
Amanda D. Francoeur
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 canaccurately 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 isanthrax or not. Images courtesy of Veritide Ltd.
Baking powder or anthrax?
Ask the Ceeker