The University of Massachusetts Amherst


According to an article released by the UMass Amherst News Office, Assistant Professor Jun Yao of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department has collaborated with his frequent colleague Derek Lovley, Distinguished Professor of Microbiology at UMass Amherst, on the creation of a so-called “electronic nose.” Their pioneering invention is “a nanowire 10,000 times thinner than a human hair that can be cheaply grown by common bacteria and tuned to ‘smell’ a vast array of chemical tracers,” a capability which can be built into “green” sensors to monitor people afflicted with a wide range of medical conditions. 

The result is an “electronic nose” built with sustainably sourced microbial nanowires that could revolutionize health monitoring. 

As Yao says about the background of the invention, which he, Lovley, and four other authors detailed in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, “Human noses have hundreds of receptors, each sensitive to one specific molecule. They are vastly more sensitive and efficient than any mechanical or chemical device that could be engineered. We wondered how we could leverage the biological design itself rather than rely on a synthetic material.”  

Consequently, what the team did was to utilize the ability of special bacteria that can grow odor-sensitive nanowires and engineer them into leading-edge sensors. According to the News Office story, “Thousands of these specially tuned wires, each sniffing out a different chemical, can be layered onto tiny, wearable sensors, allowing healthcare providers an unprecedented tool for monitoring potential health complications. Since these wires are grown by bacteria, they are organic, biodegradable, and far greener than any inorganic nanowire.”

The new invention, says the News Office, springs from a bacterium known as Geobacter sulfurreducens, which Lovley and Yao previously used to create a biofilm capable of producing long-term, continuous electricity from your sweat. G. sulfurreducens has the surprising natural ability to grow tiny, electrically conductive nanowires. 

But, as the News Office explains, G. sulfurreducens is a “finicky” bacterium that needs specific conditions in which to grow, making it difficult to use at scale. “What we’ve done,” says Lovley, “is to take the ‘nanowire gene’—called pilin—out of G. sulfurreducens and splice it into the DNA of Escherichia coli, one of the most widespread bacteria in the world.”

According to Yao, “One of the most exciting things about this line of research is that we’re taking electrical engineering in a fundamentally new direction. Instead of wires made from scarce raw resources that won’t biodegrade, the beauty of these protein nanowires is that you can use life’s genetic design to build a stable, versatile, low-impact, and cost-effective platform.”

In addition to Yao, his ECE Ph.D. student Xiaomeng Liu also worked on the research and co-authored the paper in Biosensors and Bioelectronics.  

Liu is a member of the Yao Research Group. As Yao explains, “We are an interdisciplinary group interested in synthesis and engineering micro/nanoscale materials to enable novel devices, sensors, and their integration on rigid or soft frameworks for functional electronic or bioelectronic systems. One of the main strategies is to borrow from ‘biological integration’ for smart and efficient engineering.” 

Yao is also affiliated with the Biomedical Engineering Department and the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences.

Since 2019, Yao has won a host of prestigious awards and distinctions, including: an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship; a National Institutes of Health Trailblazer R21 Award; the Barbara H. & Joseph J. Goldstein Outstanding Junior Faculty Award from the College of Engineering; a Sony Faculty Innovation Award; a UMass Armstrong Fund for Science Award; a UMass Manning/IALS Innovation Award; and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. (March 2023) 

Article posted in Research