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A look inside one of USF’s signature programs

Daniel Lim strolls around his laboratory, stops and points to a black box entwined in tubes and wires.

“This machine is called The Raptor,” he says.

Lim, a microbiology professor who directs the Advanced Biosensors Laboratory inside the USF Research Park, acquired it in 1997. He wanted to use it to detect biological agents, such as ricin, E. coli or anthrax. Standard tests – like one a physician may administer – take days to determine whether a substance was contaminated.

“This takes about 12 minutes,” he said.

The Raptor is a good example of why Lim and his team of scientists (over the past nine years) have gained national recognition in the field of biological defense – they make the invisible visible and the unclear clear, and they do it quickly.

“This is a high-profile program we have here at USF, one of our signature programs,” Vice President of Research Robert Chang said. “And the fact that USF faculty can provide expertise and address these issues in homeland security is very important.”

Since the events of Sept. 11, Lim’s research has become increasingly valuable to the U.S. government in relation to Homeland Security matters. In fact, in 2004, Lim was awarded the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation’s Homeland Security Award for developing tests that drastically reduced the amount of time it took to identify certain toxins, including anthrax, in which he was able to cut down the detection time from hours to minutes.

“We had funding before, but obviously after the events of Sept. 11, there was much more funding available and we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing,” Lim said.

The new 8,000 square-foot Advanced Biosensors Laboratory, which is the heart of USF’s Center for Biological Defense, opened about four months ago and will receive $3.7 million from the Department of the Army over the next two years to further research into detecting biological toxins in the air, water, food and human specimens. Depending on success, Lim said, the lab can expect more money from other sources.

USF is not the only state school that receives funds for anti-terrorism research. Florida Atlantic University, for example, has received millions in federal grants.

“Not only does Florida have a lot of coastline to protect, but we’re also a very open state, with tourism and immigration and travel,” Lim said. “So like other major states like California and New York, we have to be very diligent and alert about any type of event that occurs, be it bioterrorism or something else.”

The Advanced Biosensors Laboratory is under the umbrella of the Center for Biological Defense, which works with many different organizations on homeland security-orientated tasks. For example, its researches surveyed a large area surrounding Jacksonville when the Super Bowl was held there in February 2005 to identify any potential bioterrorism threat.

“The problem with bioterrorism is that it’s something you can’t see,” Lim said. “It’s very hard to prepare for. So you can imagine that if you were a terrorist intent on harming somebody, it would be very easy to. That’s why early detection is so important.”

The lab does not just research for military purposes.

“One thing people often don’t realize is that when we develop these tests to detect bioterrorism agents, many of them have applications for day-to-day diseases,” Lim said. “When we develop a test to detect E. coli in food, it could be E. coli that is not only introduced by a terrorist, but also E. coli that you might pick up from natural contamination of the food. And the thing with water, we develop tests to detect bacteria in water. We have a lot of contamination in water naturally, and this can help in preventing that contamination.”

Lim said the most exciting research his team has done is develop a method that constantly detects toxins in everyday drinking water.

“It’s always satisfying to know that you’re doing something that helps not only the government, but also the public,” Lim said. “I think sometimes a lot of people don’t realize all that USF does for the community and the nation.”