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

ASU, Arizona Western partnership provides bachelor's degrees in key needs for Yuma

May 22, 2015

Students at Arizona Western College’s Yuma campus will be able to complete a bachelor’s degree thanks to a new partnership with Arizona State University. The joint program between the two schools will offer degrees in three disciplines.

Students will be able to complete their ASU bachelor’s degrees on-site at one of the community college’s Yuma locations. Majors offered through the partnership were selected to address workforce needs in the greater Yuma area. Download Full Image

For example, ASU’s new bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice and a degree in organizational leadership starting in the fall of 2015 will help fill the need for well-qualified law-enforcement officers as well as prepare leaders for work in for-profit, non-profit and government agencies in the community.

A third degree in secondary education will be added in the fall of 2016, which will help graduate well-qualified candidates to fill a chronic shortage of teachers at the Yuma Union High School District, according to Associate Superintendent James Sheldahl.

“For the past several years, the district has had multiple math and science teaching positions go unfilled – some years as many as 20 (positions) district-wide,” Sheldahl said. The program also provides “a pathway to teaching for many of our talented (high school graduates) who otherwise may not have that opportunity.”

This new partnership, six months in the making, reflects Arizona Western College President Glenn Mayle’s commitment to bringing quality education programs to Yuma and La Paz counties and ASU President Michael Crow’s drive to provide a quality education to every qualified student and to fulfill the university’s responsibility to improve the opportunities in the communities around ASU.

The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association has already approved ASU offering these degrees in this new location. Students will take their lower-division courses through Arizona Western College, then proceed into upper-division courses through ASU.

ASU is anticipating that the Arizona Board of Regents will approve a reduced level of tuition, whereby a full-time student would pay $5,500 for two semesters of full-time coursework for the 2015-2016 academic year – a significant savings (a savings of as much as $4500) over resident tuition at the ASU campuses in metropolitan Phoenix.

ASU staff visited Yuma on April 27 to recruit students for the new programs. Maria Hesse, ASU vice provost for academic partnerships, has been leading the partnership discussions along with Linda Elliott-Nelson, Arizona Western College (AWC) vice president, and Daniel Barajas, dean of AWC. Hesse, who is a former community college president, explained that the partnership plays to the strengths of both institutions.

“AWC provides high-quality college programs in beautiful facilities, with wonderful faculty,” Hesse said. “Students then finish their work through ASU, graduating with a degree from a top-tier research university, which is highly marketable. By sharing resources, we can offer the degree at a lower cost, something appreciated by parents and community leaders.”

Students and organizations who are interested in the fall 2015 programs can contact Clayton Kidd at for criminology and criminal justice in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and Kim Keck at for organizational leadership in ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences.

Students interested in the fall 2016 secondary education program can contact Laura Grosso from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at

A partnership kick-off event is scheduled for Oct. 13, in Yuma at which presidents Mayle and Crow will both speak.

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts