Small sensors can detect traces of explosives, using bee venom

The sensor is so sensitive it can detect a single molecule of explosive.

Scientist have previously tried to engineer plants to detect bombs and environmental contaminants and have even created a better artificial nose to sniff out explosives, but it looks like researchers are finally zeroing in on the smallest possible detection system ever: identifying if a single molecule of explosive is present.

MIT researchers created a carbon nanotube with a bee venom-based sensor, designed to detect traces of explosives. If commercialized, it could one day improve the security at airports and other checkpoint areas or be used to monitor the environment.

Scientists showed for the first time that these peptides can react to explosives when the bee venom peptides target molecules found in explosives. Since the proteins reacted differently, depending on the types of molecules found in explosives, the scientists identified a finger print that is unique for each of the explosive chemicals they exposed it to, including pesticides.

MIT professor Michael Strano said in a statement:

“Compounds such as TNT decompose in the environment, creating other molecule types, and those derivatives could also be identified with this type of sensor. Because molecules in the environment are constantly changing into other chemicals, we need sensor platforms that can detect the entire network and classes of chemicals, instead of just one type."

If the sensors make their way out of the lab and into the real world, they would be more sensitive than the spectrometry-based systems that are currently used to detect explosives in the air. In the future, let's hope a single-molecule sensor can stop someone like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab A.K.A. the underwear bomber from slipping through security. Until then, there's always the naked scanners at airports - which is in itself, a touchy subject.

Hat Tip via Popular Science || Finding a needle in a haystack [MIT news]

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