Bacillus anthracis

Anthrax is a horrific disease which can, as witnessed by a series of attacks over the years, be weaponized to spread fear and death.

The disease itself, caused by the bacterium bacillus anthracis, is highly lethal. Though some relatively effective vaccines against anthrax are available and the disease can be treated with antibiotics, it's a hardy substance and dormant endospores of the bacillus are able to survive in difficult conditions for decades before they become reactivated and multiply wildly.

Anthrax spores are easily produced in vitro and that makes them nearly ideal – at least in their powdered or aerosol form – biological weapons. The Japanese Kwantung Army was the first to test anthrax as a bioweapon in the 1930s and the substance they called Agent N proved a fearsome concoction.

In 2001, letters containing the deadly spores were delivered to the offices of several media outlets and to at least two US Senators, Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. That attack infected 22 people. Five of them died. The Department of Justice eventually identified a man they believe was the culprit, but the attack spawned a series of anthrax hoaxes and led the U.S. Postal Service to install biohazard detection systems at mail distribution centers to actively scan for anthrax.

PNNL Homeland Security microscope

Now researchers funded by the Department of Homeland Security say they can adapt cell phone cameras, turning them into microscopes which can detect deadly substances like anthrax. The work was part of a U.S. Department of Energy project at the organization's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"The first responders told us the first thing they do when a suspicious powder sample gets to the lab is to put it under the microscope," said biochemist Cheryl Baird of PNNL. "An inexpensive, yet powerful microscope in the field could be used to quickly determine whether the material is a threat or a hoax. Combine the microscope with the picture sharing capability of a smart phone, and now practically anyone can evaluate a sample at the source and have a trained microbiologist located in a lab elsewhere interpret the results within minutes."

The device, a 3D printable, plastic clip which slips over the lens of a cell phone camera, works via a readily available spherical glass bead and the researchers say the total cost of materials for each microscope is less than a dollar. That's a lot of punch for a microscope which is capable of 1000x magnification in its most powerful form and the team at PNNL adds that slight changes to the design will allow it to operate and 350x and 100x magnifications as required.

According to Baird, each device takes just 10 minutes to print.

"We have a strong optics capability at PNNL," says Baird. "Combined with our national security work, we plan to continue to develop tools that will help protect our nation and assist those on the front lines."

The research team at PNNL is also offering the plans and files for the device free to the public so anyone with access to a 3D printer can replicate their work.

Baird says the key element of the system, an inexpensive glass bead often used for reflective pavement markings at airports, makes for an ideal lens to view tiny pathogens in real time.

"We feel there are many uses out there, including human and veterinary medicine in developing countries," says PNNL microbiologist Janine Hutchison. "We're also excited about engaging kids in science. School districts have a hard time providing enough microscopes for students. Our science education staff is actively engaged in getting it into the hands of local school children this fall."