Lots of little boys ask Santa for a bike or a baseball bat. But when Richard Langlois was growing up in El Cerrito, Calif., all he wanted for Christmas were the test tubes and beakers pictured in his laboratory-supply catalogs.
These days, Langlois' equipment is supplied by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, where the biologist has been working for two years on a piece of equipment that is suddenly commanding great interest: a continuous air-monitoring system that can detect within an hour the presence of any bacteria or virus in a basketball stadium, shopping mall or other indoor place. "It's like a smoke alarm" for harmful biological agents, says Langlois.
The benefits of Langlois' Autonomous Pathogen Detection System are obvious. Instead of waiting for someone to come down with anthrax or smallpox--or running a blood test on folks who think they might be infected--the APDS might give public-safety officials sufficient warning to evacuate the area before anyone got exposed. In a world where bioterrorism is no longer unthinkable, the APDS could serve as the first line of defense.
The system works by sucking in an air sample, analyzing its components, then putting out a report at fixed intervals, up to 48 times a day. At its core is a flow cytometer--or cell sorter--that Langlois co-invented in the late 1970s. The device shines laser beams on chromosomes within cells to make a quick genetic ID. A spin-off of early research into mapping the human genome, the cell sorter is now a standard tool for diagnosing AIDS, leukemia and other cancers. Langlois even took it to Chernobyl to assess workers' genetic damage from radiation exposure after the 1986 nuclear reactor accident.
While other air sniffers are in the works or already in use, the refrigerator-size APDS stands out for its ability to rapidly detect even trace amounts of 100 different germs. To avoid the nuisance of false positives, suspected pathogens undergo a second, DNA-based test before officials are alerted.
Using the technology to sniff for biological weapons makes sense. The system was not supposed to be commercially available for two years, but the post-Sept. 11 sense of urgency could help speed development. "As I see people dying from anthrax," says Langlois, "it motivates me to work extra hard."
--By Anita Hamilton