Building a Paper Gene Circuit

James Collins | Via BU Engineering | December 1, 2014

The first case of the Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa appeared in Guinea in December 2013. But it wasn’t until March 22, 2014, that scientists finally confirmed the virus as Ebola. By that point, 49 people had already died.

Why did it take so long? Partly because confirming the diagnosis required that epidemiologists fly from Europe to Africa, collect blood samples, fly back to Europe, and analyze them in sophisticated labs.

Now a team of biologists at BU, led by Professor James Collins (BME, MSE, SE), has created a new tool that could provide a quick, cheap way to perform sophisticated lab analyses and diagnostics in the field, and may also offer a way to speed science in the lab. The tool, called a paper gene circuit, takes biological reactions out of cells and puts them onto a piece of paper. It is described in the November 6, 2014, issue of Cell.

“This could really be a game-changer for a lot of applications, including diagnostics,” says Collins, who is also a core faculty member at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. “You can literally carry this in your pocket and run an experiment in the field without any additional equipment.”