Imagine having a handheld device able to detect different types of bacteria on food, whether that food is in your kitchen, a store, a restaurant or virtually anywhere. This wireless device could detect the presence of Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens and give an alarm in response. Science fiction? Not anymore. “What we want to do is very fast detection and that anyone can do it,” said Yating Chai, a doctoral student in materials engineering at Auburn University’s Center for Detection and Food Safety who helped develop the device. She said that current bacteriological testing can take several hours, needs a lot of high-technology expertise and consumes a lot of energy. “In the future, we want it so anyone can do the test in your kitchen,” Yating said. “We want to simplify the entire process so we can directly test the food.” The two-part device Yating and her colleagues have developed consists of a very small sensor (a “magnetoelastic biosensor”) which is placed directly on the food surface and then a detector to do the scanning. As described in a recent Scientific American podcast, the sensor that touches the food has a sliver of metallic glass coated with phage E2, a virus that, for example, will only stick to Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. The scanner contains a wire coil that creates an oscillating magnetic field to measure the rate of vibration in the glass sliver. Should the sensor detect Salmonella on the food, it will stick to the phage E2 and change the vibrational frequency, which is then detected by the scanner. And, voila, the alarm sounds. “The sensor has one signal, and the food could have a different signal for which bacteria,” Yating explained. She and her fellow scientists recently published results from their five-year study of the device in the Journal of Applied Physics. Their work was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; hence, the anticipated practical applications. “That’s why we get funding from USDA,” Yating noted. She said that the developers of the device have applied for a patent and that at least one American company has already visited their offices to discuss acquiring a license to potentially start manufacturing it. As for future uses of the biosensor device, Yating is thinking big. “In the next several years, I think we will be able to incorporate it into cell phones or other monitors,” she said.