NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California has developed a device capable of online monitoring of aerosolized spores, which can detect anthrax instantaneously and sound an alert before contamination reaches lethal levels. Dubbed the "anthrax smoke detector," its name metaphorically sums up the device's function, but details of how it works are quite different from a real smoke detector, and from the approach microbiologists' have been using to detect anthrax and other bacteria, according to the device's inventor, JPL chemist Adrian Ponce.

It's an excellent example of interdisciplinary cooperation, said Ponce. "The questions came from the microbiologists. We had the answers over on our side."

The device automates the detection of endospores, a dormant bacterial form so resilient that it is used to check the performance of autoclaves, Ponce explained. Endosphores are formed by Bacillus and Clostridium bacteria, which include the causative agents of anthrax, tetanus, botulism and gas...

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