Lim leading battle against bacteria

In 2001, when an anthrax scare gripped the East Coast of Florida, public health officials had to wait days to accurately detect the disease’s highly lethal spores.Today, aided by the efforts of USF researcher Daniel Lim and his team of scientists, detecting the same bacterial spores in a powder can take just 12 minutes.

Lim, who has worked for more than 20 years to develop speedier and more accurate techniques to test for bacteria and biotoxins, will deliver a speech titled “Biosensors, Bugs and BioDefense” today at 4 p.m. in the TECO Room of the College of Education.

His speech, part of the University Lecture Series (ULS), will focus on the work of scientists in USF’s Advanced Biosensors Laboratory (ABL), a leader in the design of rapid detection techniques for biosensors since its creation in 1997.

The laboratory, which has also developed improved techniques for detecting E. coli, salmonella, cholera and other bacteria, has been thrust into prominence since the Sept. 11 attacks drove the danger of sudden violent terrorist attacks deep into the national consciousness.

“We were in the right place at the right time,” said Lim. “At the time of 9/11, we were one of the very few groups developing tests for biosensors and we remain one of the premier groups in this field.”

In the same way that software developers create programs to run on hardware, Lim’s research develops methods that help biosensors, machines that employ antibodies to detect different types of bacteria, generate better results by improving the samples of bacteria fed into them.

Before the work of Lim and his team, detection methods for anthrax and other harmful bacteria were not only slower, but also stuck in the laboratory, where detection tests were developed and run under laboratory – and not real world – conditions using bacteria suspended in water or laboratory liquids, Lim said.

“In the real world, terrorists are not going to put anthrax in water,” Lim said. “They’re going to put it in powder or put it in food. And that’s where the difficulty lies. Detecting bacteria such as an anthrax in these types of samples is much more difficult because of all of the junk interfering with the sample.”

Techniques developed in the ABL have made it easier to separate the bacteria from all the “junk” and other materials that mingle with food and powders, giving biosensors the capability to detect bacteria faster, more accurately and in smaller amounts. In the same way that software developers create programs to run on hardware, Lim’s research develops methods that help these machines generate better results by improving the samples of bacteria fed into them.

Lim and his team have also attacked the army of other pathogens that populate Floridians daily lives – E. coli, salmonella, listeria and others. They have found ways to improve the speed and accuracy of these bacteria’s detection in the water, food and air where they lurk. Quicker methods for testing beach water developed by Lim’s lab have particular importance for the restaurants and hotels lining beaches, who lose substantial business when beaches are shut down for days while their waters are tested for unsafe levels of bacteria.

The Food and Drug Administration has also embraced Lim’s methods for detecting E. coli, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Tampa Bay water providers have used them to detect waterborne bacteria.But Lim said that these applications may represent just the tip of the iceberg for advances in bacterial detection.

“I would expect that if research continues to be successful in this area, that biosensors will be one of the new types of technologies used to detect infectious disease organisms in hospitals and public environments,” Lim said.

In the last five years, Lim’s research has generated $12.5 million dollars in research grants. In November, he and three other USF researchers – Peter Stroot, Ed Turos and Richard Heller – helped attract $8 million in state financing to USF for a Florida Center of Excellence for Biomolecular Identification and Targeted Therapeutics, which will draw on top researchers involved in the detection and treatment of harmful bacteria.