Iowa State researchers collaborate with Homeland Security to create biothreat detector


Iowa State researchers in the College of Engineering are working to create a biothreat detector. 

Gwen Davis

Researchers within the College of Engineering have recently been accepted into a Cooperative Research Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to create a device that can detect biothreats.

The researcher team is trying to accomplish a feat that has not been accomplished — creating a new technology that can detect biothreats of all kinds, such as viruses, including COVID-19, Ebola and other dangerous diseases.

Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, lead researcher alongside other interdisciplinary researchers in mechanical engineering, molecular biology, chemical and biological engineering and virology, has been working on biosensing projects for close to a decade, but recently has been able to apply it to real-world scenarios.

“It has not been done up until now,” Pranav Shrotriya, professor of mechanical engineering, said.

The researchers needed to work together in their own area of expertise but needed to expand their own knowledge to work together with disciplines unfamiliar to them.

“Learning and understanding other disciplines [was a challenge],” research team member and assistant professor of mechanical engineering Todd Kingston said.

This team of Iowa State researchers has been working together since fall 2020 on the biothreat technology.

Biothreat technology has the ability to detect biothreats that are present in the air. This kind of technology impacts public safety.

“If successful, we will have created a sensor configuration that can be used to detect almost any biothreat when equipped with the appropriate aptamers — so it will make society safer by helping us to detect biothreats. Because the cost of the apparatus will be low, the device could be employed in many locations in the country,” Nilsen-Hamilton, lead researcher, said in an email.

Public safety is an important factor of creating technology like this, but all of the researchers highlighted the educational value of the research as well.

Most of the professors are working with graduate students as a part of their research, with a plan to take on undergraduate researchers down the line, Shrotriya said.

Not only are the researchers focused on the education of the future generations, so is the Department of Homeland Security.

“The [Department of Homeland Security] wants [the research] to be used to train graduate students,” Nilsen-Hamilton wrote in an email. “They have recognized the need for increasing the number of U.S. scientists with advanced training in the areas of biotechnology and engineering.”

The Cooperative Research Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security allows collaboration between the two organizations. This collaboration takes the form of regular, virtual meetings with program managers at the Department of Homeland Security.

The Iowa State research project in biothreat detectors could provide advancements in public safety and education. The hope for the project is for it to be able to successfully detect a variety of diseases and toxins.