How Researchers Used Salt To Give Masks An Edge Against Pathogens

Masks are proven tools against airborne diseases, but pathogens — like the COVID-19 virus — can collect in a mask and survive which complicates handling and disposal. [Ilaria Rubino], a researcher at the University of Alberta, recently received an award for her work showing how treating a mask’s main filtration layer with a solution of mostly salt and water (plus a surfactant to help the wetting process) can help a mask inactivate pathogens on contact, thereby making masks potentially re-usable. Such masks are usually intended as single-use, and in clinical settings used masks are handled and disposed of as biohazard waste, because they can contain active pathogens. This salt treatment gives a mask a kind of self-cleaning ability.

Analysis showing homogenous salt coating (red and green) on the surface of fibers. NaCl is shown here, but other salts work as well.

How exactly does salt help? The very fine salt coating deposited on the fibers of a mask’s filtration layer first dissolves on contact with airborne pathogens, then undergoes evaporation-induced recrystallization. Pathogens caught in the filter are therefore exposed to an increasingly-high concentration saline solution and are then physically damaged. There is a bit of a trick to getting the salt deposited evenly on the polypropylene filter fibers, since the synthetic fibers are naturally hydrophobic, but a wetting process takes care of that.

The salt coating on the fibers is very fine, doesn’t affect breathability of the mask, and has been shown to be effective even in harsh environments. The research paper states that “salt coatings retained the pathogen inactivation capability at harsh environmental conditions (37 °C and a relative humidity of 70%, 80% and 90%).”

Again, the salt treatment doesn’t affect the mask’s ability to filter pathogens, but it does inactivate trapped pathogens, giving masks a kind of self-cleaning ability. Interested in the nuts and bolts of how researchers created the salt-treated filters? The Methods section of the paper linked at the head of this post (as well as the Methods section in this earlier paper on the same topic) has all the ingredients, part numbers, and measurements. While you’re at it, maybe brush up on commercially-available masks and what’s inside them.

Washing Your Hands With 20,000 Volts

These last few weeks we’ve all been reminded about the importance of washing our hands. It’s not complicated: you just need soap, water, and about 30 seconds worth of effort. In a pinch you can even use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. But what if there was an even better way of killing bacteria and germs on our hands? One that’s easy, fast, and doesn’t even require you to touch anything. There might be, if you’ve got a high voltage generator laying around.

In his latest video, [Jay Bowles] proposes a novel concept: using the ozone generated by high-voltage corona discharge for rapid and complete hand sterilization. He explains that there’s plenty of research demonstrating the effectiveness of ozone gas a decontamination agent, and since it’s produced in abundance by coronal discharge, the high-voltage generators of the sort he experiments with could double as visually striking hand sanitizers.

Looking to test this theory, [Jay] sets up an experiment using agar plates. He inoculates half of the plates with swabs that he rubbed on his unwashed hands, and then repeats the process after passing his hands over the high-voltage generator for about 15 seconds. The plates were then stored at a relatively constant 23°C (75°F), thanks to the use of his microwave as a makeshift incubator. After 48 hours, the difference between the two sets of plates is pretty striking.

Despite what appears to be the nearly complete eradication of bacteria on his hands after exposing them to the ozone generator, [Jay] is quick to point out that he’s not trying to give out any medical advice with this video. This simple experiment doesn’t cover all forms of bacteria, and he doesn’t have the facilities to test the method against viruses. The safest thing you can do right now is follow the guidelines from agencies like the CDC and just wash your hands the old fashioned way; but the concept outlined here certainly looks worthy of further discussion and experimentation.

Regular viewers of his channel may notice that the device in this video as actually a modified version of the hardware he used to experiment with electrophotography last year.

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DNA Now Stands For Data And Knowledge Accumulation

Technology frequently looks at nature to make improvements in efficiency, and we may be nearing a new breakthrough in copying how nature stores data. Maybe some day your thumb drive will be your actual thumb. The entire works of Shakespeare could be stored in an infinite number of monkeys. DNA could become a data storage mechanism! With all the sensationalism surrounding this frontier, it seems like a dose of reality is in order.

The Potential for Greatness

The human genome, with 3 billion base pairs can store up to 750MB of data. In reality every cell has two sets of chromosomes, so nearly every human cell has 1.5GB of data shoved inside. You could pack 165 billion cells into the volume of a microSD card, which equates to 165 exobytes, and that’s if you keep all the overhead of the rest of the cell and not just the DNA. That’s without any kind of optimizing for data storage, too.

This kind of data density is far beyond our current digital storage capabilities. Storing nearly infinite data onto extremely small cells could change everything. Beyond the volume, there’s also the promise of longevity and replication, maintaining a permanent record that can’t get lost and is easily transferred (like medical records), and even an element of subterfuge or data transportation, as well as the ability to design self-replicating machines whose purpose is to disseminate information broadly.

So, where is the state of the art in DNA data storage? There’s plenty of promise, but does it actually work?

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Using Glow-in-the-Dark Fish Gut Bacteria To Make Art

In New Orleans, a Loyola University professor has been creating original art out of glow-in-the-dark fish gut bacteria, enough to fill 1000 Petri dishes. Her first major foray into art was biomorphic abstractions, inspired by Impressionist painters, with her current work reflecting much of the abstraction of the earlier style.

The bacteria comes from the Pacific Rock Fish and glows a vibrant electric-blue. It is typically kept in a freezer and has a texture and color similar to water when it’s being used. The luminescence only lasts for 24 hours, presenting timing challenges when preparing artwork for a photoshoot, as artist [Hunter Cole] often does. With a Q-tip, [Cole] paints roses, lilies, and insects onto the Petri dishes and arranges them for surreal photography shoots. In addition to painting shapes in agar, she uses a light painting technique by filling clear water bottles with the bacteria for long-exposure shots.

[Cole] is planning on presenting her work at an art exhibit in New Orleans, along with showcasing a performance piece featuring models clad in chandelier-like costumes glowing with bioluminescent bacteria in petri dishes.

Fitness Tracker Hacked Into Optical Density Meter

What do fitness trackers have to do with bacterial cultures in the lab? Absolutely nothing, unless and until someone turns a fitness band into a general-purpose optical densitometer for the lab.

This is one of those stories that shows that you never know from where inspiration is going to come. [Chinna Devarapu] learned that as a result of playing around with cheap fitness bands, specifically an ID107HR. A community has built up around hacking these bands; we featured a similar band that was turned into an EEG. With some help, [Chinna] was able to reflash the microcontroller and program it in the Arduino IDE, and began looking for a mission for the sensor-laden platform.

He settled on building a continuous optical densitometer for his biology colleagues. Bacterial cultures become increasingly turbid as the grow, and measuring the optical density (OD) of a culture is a common way to monitor its growth phase. This is usually done by sucking up a bit of the culture to measure, but [Chinna] and his team were able to use the hacked fitness band’s heartrate sensor to measure the OD on the fly. The tracker fits in a 3D-printed holder where an LED can shine through the growing culture; the sensor’s photodiode measures the amount of light getting through and the raw data is available via the tracker’s Bluetooth. The whole thing can be built for less than $20, and the plans have been completely open-sourced.

We really like the idea of turning these fitness bands into something completely different. With the capabilities these things pack into such a cheap and compact package, they should start turning up in more and more projects.

Hacked Heating Instruments For The DIY Biology Lab

[Justin] from The Thought Emporium takes on a common molecular biology problem with these homebrew heating instruments for the DIY biology lab.

The action at the molecular biology bench boils down to a few simple tasks: suck stuff, spit stuff, cool stuff, and heat stuff. Pipettes take care of the sucking and spitting, while ice buckets and refrigerators do the cooling. The heating, however, can be problematic; vessels of various sizes need to be accommodated at different, carefully controlled temperatures. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of different incubators, heat blocks, heat plates, and even walk-in environmental chambers in the typical lab, all acquired and maintained at great cost. It’s enough to discourage any would-be biohacker from starting a lab.

[Justin] knew It doesn’t need to be that way, though. So he tackled two common devices:  the incubator and the heating block. The build used as many off-the-shelf components as possible, keeping costs down. The incubator is dead simple: an insulated plastic picnic cooler with a thermostatically controlled reptile heating pad. That proves to be more than serviceable up to 40°, at the high end of what most yeast and bacterial cultures require.

The heat block, used to heat small plastic reaction vessels called Eppendorf tubes, was a little more complicated to construct. Scrap heat sinks yielded aluminum stock, which despite going through a bit of a machinist’s nightmare on the drill press came out surprisingly nice. Heat for the block is provided by a commercial Peltier module and controller; it looks good up to 42°, a common temperature for heat-shocking yeast and tricking them into taking up foreign DNA.

We’re impressed with how cheaply [Justin] was able to throw together these instruments, and we’re looking forward to seeing how he utilizes them. He’s already biohacked himself, so seeing what happens to yeast and bacteria in his DIY lab should be interesting.

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Infection? Your Smartphone Will See You Now

When Mr. Spock beams down to a planet, he’s carrying a tricorder, a communicator, and a phaser. We just have our cell phones. The University of California Santa Barbara published a paper showing how an inexpensive kit can allow your cell phone to identify pathogens in about an hour. That’s quite a feat compared to the 18-28 hours required by traditional methods. The kit can be produced for under $100, according to the University.

Identifying bacteria type is crucial to prescribing the right antibiotic, although your family doctor probably just guesses because of the amount of time it takes to get an identification through a culture. The system works by taking some — ahem — body fluid and breaking it down using some simple chemicals. Another batch of chemicals known as a LAMP reaction mixture multiplies DNA and will cause fluorescence in the case of a positive result.

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