Bioethics Blogs

Snapshots of Life: Virus Hunting with Carbon Nanotubes

Credit: Penn State University

The purple pods that you see in this scanning electron micrograph are the H5N2 avian flu virus, a costly threat to the poultry and egg industry and, in very rare instances, a health risk for humans. However, these particular pods are unlikely to infect anything because they are trapped in a gray mesh of carbon nanotubes. Made by linking carbon atoms into a cylindrical pattern, such nanotubes are about 10,000 times smaller than width of a human hair.

The nanotubes above have been carefully aligned on a special type of silicon chip called a carbon-nanotube size-tunable-enrichment-microdevice (CNT-STEM). As described recently in Science Advances, this ultrasensitive device is designed to capture viruses rapidly based on their size, not their molecular characteristics [1]. This unique feature enables researchers to detect completely unknown viruses, even when they are present in extremely low numbers. In proof-of-principle studies, CNT-STEM made it possible to collect and detect viruses in a sample at concentrations 100 times lower than with other methods, suggesting the device and its new approach will be helpful in the ongoing hunt for new and emerging viruses, including those that infect people.

The new device is the result of a long collaboration at Penn State University, University Park, involving experts in materials science, physics, chemistry, infectious diseases, and genomics. The work was led by NIH grantees Mauricio Terrones and Si-Yang Zheng, who received additional support from an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

As Terrones and Zheng explained, carbon nanotubes are an ideal material to catch viruses because they are incredibly flexible and strong.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.