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This tiny, voice-activated device extracts and pre-processes bacterial DNA and could make the lab safer for scientists and technicians. Credit: Adapted from ACS Sensors 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.2c01849

Speaking commands to Siri and Alexa is a normal part of everyday life for many people today. But “Alexa, play my favorite music” is a little different than “Alexa, pre-treat my pathogenic bacterial sample.”

Even so, researchers at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University are working to ensure that the latter of these orders will be more common in the near future.

In a new study published ACS sensorsResearchers describe the development of a portable sample preprocessing microsystem for bacterial samples that can operate automatically via a smartphone app using speech recognition.

The research team first created a microfluidic chip with multiple chambers interconnected by six three-way solenoid valves operated by a microcontroller connected to a Bluetooth module. Then, using existing speech recognition software, the team customized a smartphone app to listen for specific voice commands.

When the user says one of the action commands, the app wirelessly sends a start signal to the microcontroller. After receiving the signal, the microcontroller automatically starts a series of steps. In tests, the microsystem successfully loaded samples, washed, and released purified DNA into the collection chamber.

According to the study, the voice-controlled device was successfully extracted from the DNA Salmonella Typhimurium70% efficient purification of 10 µl of sample in less than 1 minute.

When the team evaluated the system’s performance against commercial QIAGEN kits, they found that the microsystem didn’t perform well either. However, it had the distinct advantage of voice control, portability, and fast automation. In addition, the palm-sized device weighs only 11 ounces and can be powered by a portable battery or smartphone charger, making it particularly suitable for use both in low-resource countries and in locations where on-site testing is required.

For example, during the COVID-19 epidemic, many patient samples were taken and collected at diagnostic centers. The samples had to be tested by trained laboratory technicians, but there were many unanswered questions and obstacles early in the epidemic, including how contagious SARS-CoV-2 was and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Even as gloves became more affordable, technicians still had to handle viral samples and then touch equipment such as centrifuges for RNA extraction and thermal cyclers for gene amplification. Only those activities are associated with the possibility of transmission from machine or person to person.

A microfluidic preprocessing system that works on speech recognition almost completely eliminates that contamination risk, which is even higher for more dangerous diseases like Ebola and cholera.

In April 2022, the Democratic Republic of Congo reported its sixth Ebola outbreak in just four years. It then struck neighboring Uganda, killing more than 55 people. Additionally, cholera hit Haiti hard last year, although it was far from the only country affected. According to the World Health Organization, cholera will be found in about 30 countries in 2022, compared to fewer than 20 countries in the previous five years.

A tiny device with just a portable battery or smartphone charger would make a difference in low-resource areas like Uganda and Haiti.

The researchers say the voice recognition system could also help scientists with disabilities conduct tests more easily.



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