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New Biosensor Could Help Search for Nuclear Activity

Nicole Martinez demonstrates her research in a lab at Clemson University.

Research aimed at creating a new biosensor that would help military investigators search for signs of nuclear activities, including weapons development, is moving forward under the leadership of a former naval officer who now is a Clemson University faculty member.

Nicole Martinez and her team are beginning to lay the groundwork for a biosensor that could help determine whether the radiation is natural or manmade and peaceful or weapons grade. It could help investigators search for labs amid concerns a nation or group could illicitly develop weapons of mass destruction.

“The unique aspect of the biosensor we envision is that it would give an indication of radiation exposure even after the radiation source is removed or relocated,” Martinez said. “Moreover, the proposed biosensor may distinguish between types of radiation, which would provide insight into its origin.”

The biosensor would be an improvement on current radiation-detection systems that are easily identified, must be placed close to the radiation source and report on radiation emitted only at the time the detection system is present.

Martinez, an assistant professor in the environmental engineering and Earth sciences department, is the principal investigator on the $866,884 project. It lasts three years and could be eligible for a two-year extension, boosting the total to about $1.5 million.

The team had its kickoff meeting this week.

The project is funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Exactly how the biosensor would be used and what it would look like has not been determined and would ultimately be up to the Department of Defense.

But if the biosensor functions as hoped, it could be the first based on how bacteria and yeast change DNA to RNA, a process called transcription.

Researchers will study how tritium, iron-55, plutonium-239 and neutron irradiation affect transcription in three types of bacteria and two kinds of yeast.

The effect of high doses of ionizing radiation on biological systems is well known, but much less is understood about the effect of low doses. Researchers expect to find distinctive responses at the sub-cellular level based on different types of radiation.

“The value of what we’re doing supports application but isn’t the application itself,” Martinez said. “Our research questions are along the lines of: ‘Do bacteria exhibit a unique response to radiation exposure compared to other environmental signals and stressors?  If so, does that uniqueness extend to the type of radiation to which it was exposed? If so, can we identify that unique signature or pattern of gene regulation? Can we utilize this signature to our advantage and engineer a related biosensor of radiation type?’”

The research will also involve measuring the effects of low-level radiation.

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