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Was the water poisoned? The artificial tongue will check and recognize

Israeli scientists, with funding from the Pentagon, succeeded in developing prototypes for devices capable of detecting toxins in water. The next challenge - an artificial nose for detecting toxic gases

Amnon Barzilai, Haaretz, Walla News

Prof. Rosenberg from Tel Aviv presents a miniaturized pump for testing water samples. The device developed by Belkin and Shachem's team is able to detect poisoned water, regardless of the type of poison
Prof. Rosenberg from Tel Aviv presents a miniaturized pump for testing water samples. The device developed by Belkin and Shachem's team is able to detect poisoned water, regardless of the type of poison

The long arm of the Israeli security system may receive a significant addition by the end of the decade - an artificial tongue. Teams of scientists, working at the same time in the three leading universities in the country - Hebrew, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion - overcame an obstacle considered to this day insurmountable and managed to develop devices capable of detecting any water contamination. The research and development work to build two prototypes was funded, in large part, from the budgets of the Pentagon's Research and Development Agency (DARPA). The next scientific challenge will be to develop an artificial nose, which can detect any type of toxic gases in the air.

On the basis of the scientific breakthroughs that have already been made, the operational systems will be developed. The obstacle is money. An additional investment of about 10 million dollars is required to complete the projects. The Israeli Ministry of Defense, which invests billions of shekels in the development of weapons systems for the future battlefield, expressed admiration for the scientific achievement but clarified that it does not have a budget to finance the additional expenses required. Now the scientists are waiting for private investors to believe in the business potential of these technologies and help develop a commercial device that will generate profits.

On September 10, 2001, a day before the terrorist attacks in the USA, a team of Israeli scientists presented the idea of ​​developing an artificial language to senior officials at the Pentagon. The team is headed by biologist Prof. Shimshon Belkin, head of the Environmental Sciences Unit at the Hebrew University. He proposed to engineer bacteria that would react like humans to toxic substances in water and would serve as a marker for toxic water that is not good for drinking. The Americans were captivated by the idea, but at that stage believed that it was mainly relevant to Israel. "The next day everything changed," Belkin says. "According to my vision", he adds, "the personal equipment of every combat medic in the IDF will have a multi-use device, the size of a mobile phone, to detect toxins in water."

In order to carry out the scientific breakthrough, an interdisciplinary group was formed that included, in addition to Belkin's team, also teams from the Ministry of Health, the Medical Corps and Tel Aviv University. "We, compared to the Americans, are good at carrying out multidisciplinary studies in relatively short periods of time. For them it is cumbersome, expensive and slow. This is the reason why the research agency DARPA was ready to allocate 3.5 million dollars to the Israeli project", says Prof. Yossi Shaham, head of the department of nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University who headed the Tel Aviv team. "Samson knows me. He picked up the phone and within two weeks we formulated the offer. Col. Boaz Tadmor of the Medical Corps was the living spirit and contact person in determining the research topics, and within a year we conducted our first successful experiment, led by Lt. Col. Patrick Beitan, who is a biologist responsible for water toxicity."

The breakthrough achieved by the Israeli scientists is the ability to identify and quickly identify toxins in water. According to Shaham, "The identification systems that exist to this day are wonderful in identifying poisons, provided they know the formula of the poison in advance. But today, in the era of global terrorism, if someone develops a poison whose formula we don't know, or if the properties of an existing poison are changed - endless possibilities arise and then the existing identification systems have no answer."

The idea developed by Belkin was to dispense with the identification step of the type of poison in the water. He claimed that during an emergency, due to considerations of time, one should focus on the general information that the water is poisonous. The Jerusalem team led by him has engineered coliform bacteria, which are found in the human intestine, so that they respond to toxins in the water by sending optical signals. The engineered bacteria reacts to toxins using light rays, similar to fireflies. The team headed by Shaham was responsible for the engineering-electronic side and developed the "platform" - the electronic chip on which the bacteria "sits". The weight of the prototype of the biological sensor is about 5 kilograms. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Defense, the next step will be the miniaturization of the system to a size of half a centimeter by half a centimeter, so that the weight will be reduced to tens of individual grams.

At the same time, a team led by Dr. Robert Marks from Ben-Gurion University also developed a method for identifying polluting factors. This team, which included scientists from the Department of Biotechnology Engineering and the National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev, used the engineered bacteria developed by Belkin's team, but instead of the electronic chip developed at Tel Aviv University, the bacteria sits on an optical fiber. The biological sensor (bio-sensor, consisting of fiber and bacteria) emits light when it comes into contact with toxic substances. The emitted light is transmitted through an optical fiber and enables the sampling of the water suspected of being contaminated. The intensity of the light emitted by the biological sensor will be higher when the toxicity potential of the water is high.

Compared to chip-based technology, the bio-sensor developed in Be'er Sheva is more limited in its ability to detect toxins, depending on the number of optical fibers in the device. Marx's team developed two devices. One is portable and easy to carry and is able to detect five types of poisons. The second - a stationary but heavy device, capable of detecting over a hundred types of poisons. The Ministry of Defense believes that the devices developed are too large and that the identification process is too slow.

A few weeks ago senior officials from DARPA came to Ben-Gurion University and heard details about Marx's next plan. The idea presented by Marx was to develop a pen-like device (bio-pen), which, based on the developed method, would be able to collect samples of all types of fluids (water, blood, urine, saliva) and identify toxins, bacteria and viruses. Marks: "Today, the people who test for viral infection are exposed to the risk of infection. There is currently no device on the market that XNUMX percent protects the scientist or whoever identifies the toxic substance. Even in AIDS tests, everything is exposed to the risk of infection. The bio-pen will be a closed environment. The drop of liquid will be drawn into the pen and the optical fiber and the sensor will detect the type of poison in the liquid.

"The only problem is money," says Marks. "We need 6 million dollars - 2 million to develop the system and another 4 million to make it a commercial device. When we get the money, it will take us three years to complete the project. The problem is that the Ministry of Defense has no money. Now we are waiting for the Americans' decision. If they are interested - there will be a project."

Unique knowledge of emerging scientists

The Ministry of Defense's contribution to the development of water pollution detection systems is funding the employment of a rising scientist in each of the two teams. Prof. Moni Magriso, a biophysicist who emigrated from Bulgaria in 1998, joined Dr. Marx's team. Physicist Prof. Yuri Rosenberg, who immigrated from Russia in 1999, joined Prof. Shaham's team. Magriso, 48 years old, developed the optical fiber that allows determining the level of toxicity in water through light emission. Rosenberg, 67, developed a miniaturized magnetic pump for pumping liquids for water testing.

"Everyone benefits from the way we operate," says Yaakov Nagel, the scientific deputy to the head of the Weapons and Infrastructure Development Administration (MPAAT) at the Ministry of Defense. "We contribute to the absorption of immigrant scientists in Israel, in this way we help to advance the projects, and the result is that the Ministry of Defense will benefit from the development."

The employment of the scientists is made possible through the "Fund for Rising Scientists" that was established about five years ago with joint funding from the Ministries of Defense, Absorption and Trade and Industry. The three ministries established a committee headed by Nagel. Members of the committee include, among others, MK Yuri Stern, the originator of the idea, and Dr. Leonid Divowitz, secretary of the Association for Emerging Scientists. The committee's advisor, Brigadier General (Ret.) Reuven Eyal, who speaks Russian, is working to locate up-and-coming scientists from Eastern Europe. The committee examines the employment of emerging scientists in projects that meet two criteria: the Ministry of Defense is interested in the project and there is a defense industry that is ready to develop it, or it is already under development. Most of the projects in which the emerging scientists are employed are in the fields of electro-optics, defense systems, lasers, engines, armaments, radar systems.

To date, about NIS 40 million has been raised by the Foundation for Immigrant Scientists, with which their salaries have been paid. About half of the allowance for the fund is provided by the defense system, the main beneficiary of the scientists' work. According to the established rules, the fund finances a salary for three years. At the end of the period, they decide whether to extend the employment contract. The salary is calculated at NIS 70 per hour, up to 180 hours per month.

Dr. Yigal Klein, who is in charge of research in physical chemistry at MAPA and is responsible for the activities of Magriso and Rosenberg, says: "Moni and Yuri came with a large load of unique knowledge that contributes to our needs. These are actions with many professional risks. There is no certainty that it will succeed. About ten years ago we started looking for military applications for tiny electro-optical technologies. Today we are ready to invest only in technologies that are not on the shelf. They are challenging and long-term. We are using existing infrastructures, looking for centers of excellence, which already exist, and sprouting innovative technologies that will give a power multiplier to future weapon systems and means of warfare."

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