ASU expertise results in faster, portable microbial analysis in the field

May 22, 2015

Until recently, it took hours – sometimes days – to analyze biological samples after they were frozen in the field and brought back to the laboratory. But now there is a faster, cheaper and smaller way for researchers to bring gold-standard analysis to the field.

Researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration have combined their sensors, biotechnology and instrumentation expertise to develop a portable, autonomous device that analyzes trace elements. ddPCR Bioanalytical Field Instrument microbial analysis machine Download Full Image

The highly miniaturized microbial analysis machine, called the ddPCR Bioanalytical Field Instrument, allows researchers to do things such as detect microbes in water, soil and the upper atmosphere. 

The machine, which was recently highlighted in a Nature Methods article, is portable, exceptionally low-power, robust enough for long-term field deployment, doesn't require cleaning, and is easy to deploy and operate.

Developed by a team led by experimental physicist Cody Youngbull, assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the technology was originally intended for deployment on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle platform as part of a project to map the dynamic microbial diversity in the world’s oceans.

After four years of development and millions of dollars from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the instrument is now operational. It is being used at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project to detect microbial contaminants in water more rapidly, with better accuracy and lower limits of detection.

The device employs emulsion droplet technology, which means that the aqueous sample comes into the instrument and is coated in oil, thus keeping it from ever contacting the internal components. Once samples are loaded, reagents are mixed, processed and analyzed in perfect isolation. The data is then quantified directly in the field for immediate feedback. The small droplets enable the device to produce millions of copies of any specified DNA sequence in minutes.

With the emergent capability to perform this sort of analysis on an autonomous underwater vehicle, the device is quite adaptable to the needs of the researcher and has great potential for monitoring other locations in the field, including the built environment.

According to Youngbull, while it does have health applications since it is able to quantify pathogens, he doesn’t see it as a medical diagnostic tool.

“It’s designed for exploration,” he said. “Being able to detect trace components, single molecules, autonomously and reliably, without the need for sample return or hardware consumables in a really tiny, low-power package are what our machine is all about.”

Although there may be limited medical diagnostic applications, Youngbull envisions use of the device in homeland security, mass transit, public spaces, hospitals, schools, food production and combat theater analytics.

Autonomous, digital droplet PCR is useful for many aspects of science. The device might even one day be integrat­ed into a rover, lander or orbiter to seek out extant DNA in the water on Mars, the oceans of Europa, the ice plumes of Enceladus or wherever scientist-explorers one day hope to discover and quantify nucleic acid sequences.

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU conference aims to help youth achieve economic success

May 22, 2015

For many young people, the American Dream seems increasingly out of reach. The Southwest Pathways Conference at Arizona State University will bring together national and regional experts to explore solutions to this massive challenge.

The conference will be held at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, on May 28-29. More than 100 prominent speakers from around the nation will be in attendance, as well as teams of leaders from five states: Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Southwest Pathways Conference graphic Download Full Image

One issue that will be examined during the conference is the burgeoning population of “opportunity youth,” young adults ages 16 to 25 who aren’t in school or employed. There are more such youth in Phoenix than any other city in America. This is also a big problem elsewhere in the Southwest, including Nevada and New Mexico.

“We’re focusing on the immense challenges that young people face in finding a foothold in the economy,” said Bill Symonds, director of the Global Pathways Institute and professor at ASU. “Our panels will explore ways in which we might create more promising pathways to success in the Southwest.”

The conference is being organized by the Global Pathways Institute, which is based at ASU. The institute was launched to identify and promote promising solutions to the current failure to prepare large numbers of young people for economic success.

Keynote speakers include ASU President Michael Crow; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; Jamie Casap, global education evangelist at Google; and Gayatri Agnew, director of career opportunity for the Walmart Foundation.

Afternoon breakout sessions will explore 13 of the most promising solutions and feature dozens of leading experts. Jared Veldheer, star offensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals, will speak about his remarkable route to the NFL during an evening reception at the East Valley Institute of Technology in nearby Mesa.

An advocacy organization called Opportunity Nation ranks Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada among the bottom five in the United States for providing economic mobility for young people. The leader of Opportunity Nation and many of its partner organizations will discuss solutions they have designed to help promote economic opportunity.

The Southwest Pathways Conference aims to form a research consortium to inform policy and practice in the Southwest. Another major goal of the conference is to mobilize teams of diverse stakeholders to forge strong action plans for improving pathway systems in their states. A key focus will be on underserved minority populations, which have historically lagged in education and economic mobility. 

“ASU is pleased to host a conference that aligns so well with our commitment to access and inclusivity. The diverse student population of ASU truly reflects that of the state, and we consider diversity one of our greatest strengths,” said Sethuraman "Panch" Panchanathan, senior vice president for Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU.

Panchanathan will serve as a panelist in a session on post-secondary pathway initiatives.

Registration is closed for the general public. However, members of the press who wish to cover the event may attend free of charge. Contact William Symonds,, for more information.

Allie Nicodemo

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development