Engineering Innovation Podcast and Radio Series

Spotting Spores

PostedNovember 16, 2003

Download File (mp3)

Breathing just a few floating anthrax germs can kill you.  So engineering a way to spot their invisible spores in the mail system is vital.  Currently, all letters are jostled about in a confined space, and a sample of the surrounding air collected.   Chemicals crack open any spores present, search through the DNA that's then released, and hunt down unique pieces that make anthrax anthrax.  If they capture a target, many, many copies of it are quickly made—as if to shout out: "Found some!"  It's all done before the mail moves on.  Every once in a while, though, the chemicals get fooled by similar-looking DNA.  Usually a second test run alleviates concerns.  This month's scare was a very rare exception that engineers say could become rarer still with coming refinements.  With the National Academy of Engineering, Randy Atkins, WTOP Radio.