Most of the genetic material in any bacteria isn't harmful. For instance, the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, responsible for the waterborne illness cholera, has many housekeeping genes that maintain the organism, but are not dangerous to humans by themselves. But the gene producing the cholera toxin is harmful. These genes serve as good markers for detection. Hashsham's device will be designed to look for such marker genes.
"This technology is rugged and highly parallel; it can analyze lots of marker genes in a lot of samples, together with significantly lower false positives," Hashsham said.
He said the hand-held testing device could be used anywhere that cost-effective testing of food, water or air is needed for a number of pathogens.
"Because of the lower cost, there also will be applications in countries where fewer resources are available for drinking water safety," Hashsham said.
Looking toward the future, Hashsham has been in touch with several organizations that might be interested in the device. AquaBioChip LLC, a Lansing-based company formed by the same team through a previous grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., will test the device under field conditions.
He has a team of six graduate students and technicians working on this device. "They are the heart of the project as well as the scientists being trained for the future," Hashsham said. That number of employees is likely to increase when the device gets to the commercialization stage.