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Detecting Dangerous Bacteria

The way ahead for detecting dangerous bacteria is electrical stimulation.

Dr Munehiro Asally, School of Life Sciences, Warwick

Bacteria are found almost everywhere on Earth and are vital to the planet’s ecosystems. Indeed, the human body is full of bacteria, and is estimated to contain an almost equal number of bacterial cells than human cells – most of which are beneficial and necessary for our health.

However, some bacteria are harmful whether in foods, beverages or drugs. As a result, the detection of live bacteria is critical for public health. The most common technique is to use a sample to grow a culture, which can then be tested. However, this can take between 12 and 48 hours.

Our research has reduced that time to less than an hour – saving lives and delivering significant efficiencies to manufacturing and other processes.

Our research, at the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre, looked at how electrical stimulation affected bacteria. It is an exciting area where we can both advance our fundamental understanding of life and create innovative new technologies.

We were particularly interested in the idea of controlling and understanding biological systems using electricity and the results from our research were incredible.

By combining biological experiments, engineering, and mathematical modelling myself and my colleagues found that healthy bacteria cells and cells inhibited by antibiotics or UV light showed completely different electric reactions. We discovered that bacterial response to electricity depends on their bioenergetic state.

This means that by measuring how cells respond to electricity we can distinguish growth-active cells from growth-inhibited cells.

Towards the end of the project, we received funding to join the ICURe (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme to conduct market research and meet potential customers.

As a result, we reached a ‘pivot’ point where we realised that our technology could bring an innovative solution for the detection of microbes, not just the difference between growth-active and growth inhibitive.

The result was Cytecom, a spin-out company formed at the University of Warwick. After discovering that electrically induced membrane potential dynamics could be used as an indicator for a bacterial population's ability to grow, the task of harnessing this into a usable technology began.

From this arose CyteCount - a portable, standalone, and easy-to-use device for rapid detection of live bacteria. It can produce results which are like the plate counts used in medical and industrial testing, but about 20x faster. This can save lives but also benefit the economy by detecting contamination in manufacturing processes, for example. 

Although, there were challenges to begin with, needing to design and build our own experimental device from scratch, all whilst exploring the right electric stimulations, we are extremely proud of what we have achieved.

This was only made possible through the hard work of the team at the University at Warwick, from post doctorates to students, and especially, Dr James P Stratford, a co-founder of Cytecom.

It is such an exciting time to work on bioelectricity of bacterial cells. Our work has demonstrated that bacterial electricity could result in new and cutting-edge technology, while at the same time gaining fundamental insights into our basic understanding of life.

The University of Warwick has been instrumental to our progress. The support, contribution, and willingness to champion our research is something that makes it an industry-leading research institute, and one I am pleased to be a part of. They provided the foundations and springboard for our company, and I am extremely grateful for this.

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