A Ph.D. student demonstrates a prototype of the Rolosensor at Emory University. Photo courtesy of Bryan Meltz, Emory University.

What you need to know

Researchers at NIH-supported Emory University are applying a new technology to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the air. A smartphone app will report the findings back to researchers in real time. This faster and automated approach may help reduce the spread of the virus.

What are the researchers doing?

The researchers are developing a sensor that will detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the air, in a way similar to how a smoke detector works. The device uses a technology called Rolosense, which the researchers developed on a previous NIH-supported project. Rolosense uses a DNA motor, which is a tiny bead covered in DNA. The motor runs along an RNA track on a chip to detect specific molecules found in the air.

In this new project, the sensor bead and chip are coated in molecules that stick to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When the sensor is placed in a location and activated, any virus in the air that lands on the motor or the chip will bind them together so that the motor stops moving.

When the motor stops, the device sends a signal to a smartphone. It immediately alerts the user that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been detected at the sensor’s location.

Why is this research important?

The goal of this project is to design a sensor that can be used to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in schools, grocery stores, airports, and other public places. The sensor would allow researchers, health officials, and local lawmakers to know right away when SARS-CoV-2 virus is circulating in the air. They can then take steps to prevent its spread and possible transmission.

Where can I go to learn more?

Watch a video about the technology

  • Learn more about the Rolosense technology in this video: “First rolling DNA motor speeds up ‘nano-walkers.’

Read about this project on NIH RePORT

  • Learn more about the project, “Rolosense: An innovative platform for automatic mobile phone readout of active SARS-CoV-2 particles.”

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

  • Find COVID-19 information on NIAAA’s site.

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