Scientist’s DNA computer detects deadly viruses

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Scientist’s DNA computer detects deadly viruses


Published on 28 July 2014

At a time when the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history is making world headlines, so too is a USC scientist who has developed a molecular computer that could hold the key to faster detection of the virus.

USC Senior Lecturer in Molecular Engineering Dr Joanne Macdonald has created a computer that uses molecular circuitry to identify synthetic DNA that mimics both the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

“In effect, we have developed a diagnostic tool that uses molecules themselves to detect viruses, with the results displayed as a single letter or code,” Dr Macdonald said.

She said the system, which can currently recognise Ebola and Marburg viruses, would be further developed to aid in early detection of a wide range of pathogens, with the potential to help contain outbreaks and improve patient care.

A research paper by Dr Macdonald and eight other international researchers was this month published in the international edition of prestigious chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie and featured in both Chemistry World and Scientific American.

Dr Macdonald, who holds a joint appointment with Columbia University in New York, previously made headlines as part of a research team that developed a DNA-based machine that could play noughts and crosses against people.

“Building on that research, I have created new circuits that create visual displays similar to a graphics processing unit on a conventional computer,” she said.

Dr Macdonald said that because the molecular computer’s circuits are made of DNA they can also interact with the environment.

“We made synthetic DNA that mimics a short part of the Ebola virus and the Marburg virus and we demonstrated that our computer circuit could diagnose and tell the difference between them.”

“The computer screen displays a Pink ‘E’ for Ebola or a green ‘M’ for Marburg, which is significant because it’s the first time that a single test can present two different readouts depending on what is present.”

Dr Macdonald said she and her USC research team were now working to add further detection systems, including displays for Hendra and Australian bat lyssavirus, to the same device. Her research is being funded by the Queensland Government Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts.

– David Cameron

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