Under the DARPA Friend or Foe program, Raytheon is developing a portable device to evaluate bacteria and their potential to cause harm. Since current biosurveillance strategies are not effective on undiscovered bacterial strains or on bacteria engineered to evade detection, the DARPA programme “Friend or Foe” aims to characterise bacteria quickly by examining its behaviour.
“Population growth, global travel, climate change — all of these factors increase the risk of exposure to unfamiliar bacteria,” said Aaron Adler, Ph.D. and principal investigator for the Friend or Foe program at Raytheon BBN Technologies. “Most of those bacteria are harmless or even beneficial, but our goal is to develop a system that lets people know quickly when they are not as a cue to take mitigating action.”
The screening process begins with collecting and isolating a single bacterium in a tiny cube with a porous membrane. Sensor arrays in the cube make initial measurements on respiration, consumption of specific nutrients and metabolite production. Suspect bacteria is then extracted and exposed to synthetic substances that mimic human tissues.
“To get a reliable risk assessment, we need to understand not just the bacteria‘s genetic makeup, or genotype, but how it functions – its phenotype,” said Adler. “We are looking at ways to subject the bacteria to a gauntlet of behaviour screenings so we can determine its ability to cause disease.”