ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Imagine several Soldiers suddenly become severely ill after eating breakfast. If there is a toxin, virus or deadly bacteria in the food or water supply, then it needs to be identified fast.

Researchers at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center are working on a system that will take advantage of portable analytical equipment in development to detect food and water contaminates in the field and provide critical life-saving information within minutes.

There are often two factors that need to be overcome when dealing with any contamination threat -- the location of samples and the wait time for results, said Dr. Mary Wade, Detection Spectrometry Branch chief at ECBC.

The Agents of Biological Origin Identifier system could possibly eliminate these two factors. It takes only minutes for the ABOid software to identify harmful agents, while current techniques may take days.

ABOid is an algorithm that was developed by the ECBC's Detection Spectrometry Branch in 2012, Wade said. ABOid is intended to be used with a biological mass spectrometer, a tool used to identify biological fragments in samples. As biological mass spectrometers become more readily available and soon portable, contaminants will be detected in the field quickly.

At ECBC, keeping warfighters and civilians safe from all chemical and biological threats is paramount, including threats that could be present in things that are consumed such as food or water.

Recently, the Army Public Health Command partnered with ECBC's Detection Spectrometry Branch to complete studies that demonstrated how ABOid can identify salmonella and ricin in mashed potato samples with 100 percent accuracy. This study resulted in a new patent license agreement and cooperative research and development agreement with Biodetech LLC to further develop how ABOid can be used in commercial food detection.

"The goal is to make ABOid available to food companies for screening in order to prevent food poisoning," Wade said.

The ECBC and Biodetech partnership will explore biological detection in more complex foods such as meats and dairy products. It will likely lead to an improved detection process of contaminants in the commercial food industry in the near future.

Now ECBC and PHC are pushing ABOid to a new realm of research with the Environmental BioSurveillance project, where the team is using ABOid to test water samples from around the world.

"A terrorist could pollute small or large drinking water supplies," Wade said. "ABOid could be used to quickly spot these potentially harmful agents and mitigate risks towards warfighters and civilians."

Testing water presents new challenges when compared with testing other substances like mashed potatoes. The water samples in the EBS project have been collected from around the globe and contain a huge variety of microbes, of which many will be un-sequenced.

However, ABOid will still classify these unknown microbes. Dr. Rabih Jabbour received an Outstanding Technical Achievement Award for biological detection using mass spectrometry-based proteomics in 2014 and continues to work on the ABOid projects.

The ABOid software takes the mass spectrometer data, called mass spectra signatures, and performs statistical analysis in order to provide an output of proteomics. The analysis indicates pathogens, toxicity, and organism strain levels.

The ABOid database already scans for more than 2,800 bacteria, 3,600 viruses, 80 fungi and parasites, and all known toxins. If an un-sequenced microbe is detected, then ABOid will classify it and still provide valuable information.

While chemical mass spectrometers are often portable, there are currently no portable mass spectrometers for biological detection. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding a project to field a portable biological mass spectrometer by 2018.

A portable biological mass spectrometer partnered with ABOid could mean on-the-spot biological detection for food and environmental samples. This powerful combination of technologies would have life-saving impacts in civilian communities and on the battlefield.


The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.