Tiny sensors incorporated into wearable fabrics like masks and jackets could provide instant information on exposure to disease-causing pathogens such as the coronavirus, according to research published on Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
The highly-sensitive tests that up to now have been restricted to laboratory use are integrated into smart wearables "beyond what a FitBit or Applewatch can offer", said study co-author Peter Nguyen a research scientist at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.
"The concept is similar to how our own skin works, where you automatically sense your environment with exquisite sensitivity without needing to actively participate in the details of the process itself," he said.
In the new study, scientists were able to re-create the cell parts that sense dangerous microorganisms and freeze-dry them.
They are then re-activated to begin testing by adding water -- like a "package of instant ramen noodles", according to Nguyen.
Such tests have previously been based on living cells, which researchers said can be too fragile and sometimes dangerous in non-medical settings.
In the new study, researchers used cell-free reactions that contain the tools of a living cell without the cell itself.
Since they are not alive, the sensors can be freeze-dried and stored for months until they are ready to be activated.
The authors showed that these sensors, which use CRISPR gene editing technology, could match laboratory virus detection and be woven into wearable fabrics.
Nguyen said the wearable detectors might be useful for "anyone working in an environment where they might be exposed to pathogens or toxins".
Researchers developed a prototype Covid-19 testing face mask with a patch of sensors attached to a pad that collects the user's breath particles.
After the wearer has used the mask for at least 15 minutes, they pierce a small pouch on the mask and water wicks the sample into the sensor for analysis.