Handheld Microorganism Detector Tested Aboard Space Station
Astronaut Suni Williams, Expedition 14/15 flight engineer, works with the Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System (LOCAD-PTS). Williams is placing the sample mixed with water from the swabbing unit into the LOCAD-PTS cartridge.
Credit: NASA.

LOCAD-PTS (Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development?Portable Test System) is a hand-held device that can detect the presence of bacteria or fungi in record time. The device has been tested aboard the International Space Station.

Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams opened the instrument kit bag, assembled LOCAD-PTS, and then took six readings during her recent mission to the station. "The first two readings were controls to show that the instrument was operating correctly," explains Jake Maule, LOCAD-PTS project scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "First she swabbed her palm, which she had first pressed to handrails and other often-handled surfaces that should have had lots of bacteria?and indeed, we got a strong positive reading."

The standard method of culturing suspect bacteria is far more time-consuming. Typically, the investigator must press a square of solid gel growth medium to a surface for a few moments, put it back in its package, and then let the sample incubate for a few days.

LOCAD-PTS, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes. The investigator takes a sterile dry swab (similar to a Q-tip) and rubs it on the surface. Then, ultra-clean water is flushed through the swab; a few drops of the liquid is dispensed into the instrument (see LOCAD-PTS photo).

Microorganisms can affect the health of both astronauts and spacecraft. (Yes, spacecraft can get "sick" from microorganisms; see Unwanted Life Forms Abound In Sick Spacecraft for details.) According to Norman Wainwright of the Charles River Laboratories in Charleston, SC:

"The ability to monitor microorganisms would be especially important on long space voyages, not only to check the health of astronauts but also to monitor electronics and structural materials, which can be corroded or otherwise damaged by certain fungi and bacteria," says Wainwright. LOCAD-PTS is designed so that "astronauts can do the analysis onboard with no need to return samples to laboratories on Earth."

This wonderful little device is very similar to a fictional technology described by science fiction author Greg Bear in his new novel Quantico. Do terrorists have engineered bio-weapons? Better use the WAGD to find out:

She had yet to bring out her WAGD - pronounced Wag-Dee, for Wright Assay Germ Detector - a biohazard analyzer the size and shape of a large magic marker. She carried two in her coat pocket...
(Read more about the WAGD germ detector with excerpts from an interview with Greg Bear)

The LOCAD-PTS is not to be confused with the famous Star Trek tricorder, of which NASA has several prototypes:

Read more at Science@NASA; also, Greg Bear wrote an interesting piece on bacteria in space - see Biospace 21.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)