A simple white napkin made from a specially designed polymer allows researchers to detect pathogens and other potential biohazards by wiping a surface or soaking up a spill. Nanofibers roughly 1/800th the size of a human hair made from polylactic acid (PLA)--a polymer derived from corn--have been studded with antibodies that serve as biological sensors. The napkin collects a pathogen and, hiding thousands of those biosensors in its tremendous internal surface area, efficiently exposes it to detection, according to new research presented by Margaret Frey of Cornell University at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco on September 11.

Frey's group used electricity to create a fine mat of the PLA fibers--a technique known as electrospinning--and embedded biotin, a reactive B vitamin. The biotin carried antibodies for Escherichia coli, and the fibers changed color when the germ was detected. "It works with E. coli in either water or [on a] surface," says Frey, whose latest work will soon be published in the Journal of Membrane Science. "Right now, it's just one pathogen, but it has the possibility of hundreds."

The Cornell team can only detect pathogens they know to look for--so that they can attach the appropriate antibodies to the fibers--and have not determined exactly how low a concentration of bacteria they can detect. But the paperlike fabric shows great potential simply for its ease of use. "Anybody who knows how to use a napkin could use it," Frey notes. "You wouldn't need a trained chemist to detect biohazards." And Frey's group is evaluating other fiber compounds that actually attract water, unlike PLA. Such hydrophilia might boost efficacy and ease use even further. Perhaps in the near future, you'll reach for a tissue not just for a sneeze, but also to find out exactly what ails you.