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Zika test spreads synthetic biology innovation around the world

A Wyss Institute diagnostic has excited interest from the public through its exhibition at the Science Museum London

The Zika test on display at Science Museum London. Credit: Science Museum London

(LONDON) – The rapid, portable Zika diagnostic – developed in spring 2016 at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering by a team of collaborators led by Core Faculty member James Collins – has been visited by an estimated 300,000 people inside the Science Museum London, where the prototype test has been on display since August 2016.

At the Wyss Institute, Collins’ team developed the Zika test to work without requiring refrigeration or electricity by engineering a diagnostic system built of freeze-dried synthetic gene circuits embedded within paper discs. These circuits become activated when the paper is rehydrated with a droplet of sample fluid, which could theoretically be blood, urine or saliva, so that the disc changes color to indicate a positive result for Zika virus. The color changing visual readout is similar to that of a home pregnancy test. Working with collaborators in Ecuador, the Zika test has recently been used to accurately diagnose presence of Zika virus in patient samples.

Close up of the Zika test on display. Credit: Science Museum London

The Zika test was exhibited in the contemporary science gallery, where technology is selected for its ability to “open the doors to significant strides in our future,” according to Sheldon Paquin, an exhibition content developer at Science Museum London. Alongside the Zika test, other displays included artificial nerves that connect directly to the brain and an autonomous submarine that monitors icebergs in relation to global warming.

“The exciting thing for us about the [Zika test] is that it’s a practical application of synthetic biology, and could dramatically change how we think of diagnostics in the future,” said Paquin. “Tests like these are critical for modern healthcare to leave the hospital.”

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