Yeast dust makes a cheap, fast virus sensor for human, animal and environment testing

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Researchers from The University of Queensland have made a dust from baker’s yeast that can detect COVID-19.

The powdery ‘nanoprobes’ developed at UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) are synthetic fragments of the yeast cell wall which can be deployed in environments such as airports, hospitals, stadiums and sewers to detect COVID-19 biomarkers.

Lead researcher and director of the AIBN’s Centre for Personalised Nanomedicine Professor Matt Trau said the yeast nanoprobes could be integrated into current COVID-19 testing platforms as well as acting as stand-alone sensors because of the stability the yeast cell walls have, enabling them to survive even in harsh, high temperature, dry and acidic or caustic conditions.

“Yeast has long been a cheap, safe and abundant ingredient in bread and beer, and thanks to its unique chemical properties, it can now be used as a universal diagnostic technology that rivals PCR testing for speed and sensitivity, whilst being cheap and easy to manufacture and stable in environments no other traditional diagnostic could withstand - such as the surface of high flow air filters,” said Professor Trau.

“We often refer to yeasts as biofactories because they are the oldest industrial microorganisms to make essential products for us.

“In this case, we are using the same historically inexpensive and highly scalable food production systems to create a sensor powder that can be deployed in the environment to detect a range of viral threats.”

All conventional fluorescent, electrochemical, paper or dye-based analysis techniques can be used to examine the nanoprobes to see if they have been exposed to a virus. The researchers are also investigating a device-independent self-reporting yeast sensor that can be read remotely with no specialist equipment, such as through drones or satellite surveillance).

AIBN research fellow Dr Selvakumar Edwardraja said the yeast sensor technology could also be genetically programmed to detect any specific or future viral strain, such as the COVID-19 variants Delta and Omicron, and give health systems a head start on new and emerging viral threats that could be jumping from animals to people.

“The constant mutation of COVID-19 means it is no longer enough to test whether someone has been infected,” said Dr Edwardraja.

“We must now be able to quickly identify which variant a patient has, where it has come from, and what needs to be done to treat it. We would also like to know, from which animal it came.”

Research co-author Dr Chris Howard said the yeast nanoprobes' cost-effective and easily scalable nature means the technology could be a globally accessible tool for pandemic defence systems.

“If we want to block new and more severe variants from taking hold, we need diagnostic tools that are quick to make and distribute and can be tweaked for a wide range of on-site testing processes,” said Dr Howard.

“With yeast being so cheap, this technology could be important for low resource regions of the globe that cannot afford current expensive diagnostic tests or manufacturing facilities.”

The nanoprobe technology is described in full in Nature Nanotechnology.