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ASU expertise results in faster, portable microbial analysis in the field

May 22, 2015

Until recently, it took hours – sometimes days – to analyze biological samples after they were frozen in the field and brought back to the laboratory. But now there is a faster, cheaper and smaller way for researchers to bring gold-standard analysis to the field.

Researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration have combined their sensors, biotechnology and instrumentation expertise to develop a portable, autonomous device that analyzes trace elements. ddPCR Bioanalytical Field Instrument microbial analysis machine Download Full Image

The highly miniaturized microbial analysis machine, called the ddPCR Bioanalytical Field Instrument, allows researchers to do things such as detect microbes in water, soil and the upper atmosphere. 

The machine, which was recently highlighted in a Nature Methods article, is portable, exceptionally low-power, robust enough for long-term field deployment, doesn't require cleaning, and is easy to deploy and operate.

Developed by a team led by experimental physicist Cody Youngbull, assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the technology was originally intended for deployment on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle platform as part of a project to map the dynamic microbial diversity in the world’s oceans.

After four years of development and millions of dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the instrument is now operational. It is being used at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project to detect microbial contaminants in water more rapidly, with better accuracy and lower limits of detection.

The device employs emulsion droplet technology, which means that the aqueous sample comes into the instrument and is coated in oil, thus keeping it from ever contacting the internal components. Once samples are loaded, reagents are mixed, processed and analyzed in perfect isolation. The data is then quantified directly in the field for immediate feedback. The small droplets enable the device to produce millions of copies of any specified DNA sequence in minutes.

With the emergent capability to perform this sort of analysis on an autonomous underwater vehicle, the device is quite adaptable to the needs of the researcher and has great potential for monitoring other locations in the field, including the built environment.

According to Youngbull, while it does have health applications since it is able to quantify pathogens, he doesn’t see it as a medical diagnostic tool.

“It’s designed for exploration,” he said. “Being able to detect trace components, single molecules, autonomously and reliably, without the need for sample return or hardware consumables in a really tiny, low-power package are what our machine is all about.”

Although there may be limited medical diagnostic applications, Youngbull envisions use of the device in homeland security, mass transit, public spaces, hospitals, schools, food production and combat theater analytics.

Autonomous, digital droplet PCR is useful for many aspects of science. The device might even one day be integrat­ed into a rover, lander or orbiter to seek out extant DNA in the water on Mars, the oceans of Europa, the ice plumes of Enceladus or wherever scientist-explorers one day hope to discover and quantify nucleic acid sequences.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Calif. leader: State can learn from model set by ASU

May 22, 2015

California's public universities need to innovate and increase access for more students if the state is to remain economically strong, according to Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of that state, who told a Sacramento audience this week that there are lessons to be learned from the model forged by Arizona State University and its president, Michael M. Crow.

“Michael has had that opportunity and has begun to move in I think a radically different direction,” Newsom said. “It’s very intriguing, his success, as a model, for the kinds of conversations we need to start having here in the state [of California].” Michael M. Crow Gavin Newsom ASU Zocalo education access impact Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow (left) at a discussion with California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento. Newsom said ASU's work in providing access to education was "intriguing" and something his state should follow. Photo by: Zocalo Public Square Download Full Image

Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, joined Crow in a conversation in Sacramento sponsored by Zócalo Public Square on May 18.

The discussion touched on a range of issues, including the demand for increased access to post-secondary education and the future of online classes – all areas addressed in Crow’s book “Designing the New American University,” which was co-written with William Dabars.

Crow argued that one of the first things universities – especially public schools – should feel compelled to address is providing as much educational opportunity as possible.

“Rather than public universities working to emulate private universities by becoming more and more exclusive, how could [they] build teaching, learning and discovery institutions that have the capability of engaging the entire demographic of our society,” Crow said.

ASU, he said, is asking itself a central question to tackle that challenge – and coming up with the answer.  

“How can we demonstrate in a new model to add to the existing models the ways in which an integrated accessibility, excellence and impact university could be designed, built and deployed to work?” Crow said.

Crow was asked by the moderator, Sacramento Bee publisher Cheryl Dell, to project the future of the recently announced Global Freshman Academy, a partnership between ASU and the online education company edX to provide college credit online at a relatively inexpensive cost.

Crow described the evolution he expected in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which will form the basis of the academy. He indicated that critics of the plan are likely imagining present-day MOOCs, which often are just a video stream of a lecture. He compared that to an early 20th-century technology.

“We’re going to take MOOCs to the next level,” he said. “So they’re not going to be dial-up telephones; maybe they’ll be smartphones.”

Crow said that with future iterations of MOOCs, comparing what a student learns in a traditional classroom to what a student learns online will be simple.

“Do you understand chemistry or not? Do you understand biology or not? Do you understand physics or not?” Crow said. “And not only will you understand it, but you’ll understand it more deeply than you would have understood it through a normal process for most students.”

Newsom noted that that kind of thinking has its detractors.

“That scares a lot of folks,” he said, “because we’re so familiar with the old model.”

Zócalo describes itself as “a not-for-profit ideas exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.” It is an affiliate of Arizona State University. Crow has participated in several Zócalo events.

Innovation in higher education seems to be a passion of both Crow and Newsom.

The lieutenant governor argued that for California to remain economically vibrant it would have to educate more of its citizens.

“Unless we do something big, unless we’re bold, on this access issue California’s clock is about to get cleaned,” he said.