Soon, edible optical sensors to make food safer

August 10th, 2008 - 6:24 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Aug 10 (ANI): Edible optical sensor that could be placed in produce bags to detect harmful levels of bacteria and consumed right along with the veggies, could soon be a reality. Thanks to biologically active, biodegradable optical devices - made from silk and needing no refrigeration, designed by Tufts University scientists.
Scientists have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to design such “living” optical elements that could enable an entirely new class of sensors, which have applications medicine, health, the environment and communications. These sensors would combine sophisticated nanoscale optics with biological readout functions, be biocompatible and biodegradable, and be manufactured and stored at room temperatures without use of toxic chemicals.
The scientists used fibers from silkworms to develop the platform devices and now Tufts University has filed a number of patent applications on silk-based optics and is actively exploring commercialization opportunities.
“Sophisticated optical devices that are mechanically robust yet fully biodegradable, biocompatible and implantable don”t exist today. Such systems would greatly expand the use of current optical technologies in areas like human and livestock health, environmental monitoring and food quality,” said principal investigator Fiorenzo Omenetto, associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate professor of physics.
“For example, at a low cost, we could potentially put a bioactive silk film in every bag of spinach, and it could give the consumer a readout of whether or not E. coli bacteria were in the bag-before the food was consumed,” explained David Kaplan, professor and chair of the biomedical engineering department.
Silk proteins are, literally, a natural for integrating optical and biological functions.
To create the devices, scientists boiled cocoons of the Bombyx mori silkworm in a water solution and extracted the glue-like sericin proteins. The purified silk protein solution was ultimately poured onto negative molds of ruled and holographic diffraction gratings with spacing as fine as 3600 grooves/mm.
The cast silk solution was air dried to create solid fibroin silk films that were cured in water, dried and optically evaluated. Using a similar process, they created lenses, microlens arrays and holograms. Film thicknesses from 10 to 100 um were characterized for transparency and optical quality.
The variety and quality of the optical elements compared favourably with conventional platforms and outperformed other commonly used biopolymers.
The most compelling feature of the platform, according to the Tufts researchers, is that the elements are prepared, processed and optimized in all-aqueous environments and at ambient temperature. This makes possible the inclusion of sensitive biological ”receptors” within the solution that stay active after the solution has hardened into a free-standing silk optical element.
Researchers embedded three very different biological agents in the silk solution: a protein (hemoglobin), an enzyme (horseradish peroxidase) and an organic pH indicator (phenol red). In the hardened silk optical element, all three agents maintained their activity for long periods when simply stored on a shelf.
“We have optical devices embedded with enzymes that are still active after almost a year of storage at room temperature. This is amazing given that the same enzyme becomes inactive if forgotten and left unrefrigerated for a few days,” said Omenetto.”
They found that it was possible to alter the propagation of light through the silk optic as a function of the embedded dopant to create an optical signal of the biological activity.
The Tufts research was published in a recent paper in Biomacromolecules. (ANI)

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