Wearable ‘microbrewery’ detects radiation damage

Researchers have engineered yeast "microbreweries" to help hospital lab workers better track their daily radiation exposure, enabling a faster assessment of tissue damage that could lead to cancer.

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Workers in hospitals and nuclear facilities can wear disposable yeast badges to check their daily radiation exposure instantly.
Source: Purdue University/Kayla Wiles

On a commercial level, the readout device could one day be a tablet or phone. The badge could also be adapted in the future for nuclear power plant workers and victims of nuclear disasters. “You would use the badge when you’re in the lab and recycle it after you’ve checked your exposure by plugging it into a device,” said Manuel Ochoa, a postdoctoral researcher in Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Radiology workers are regularly exposed to low doses of radiation when they obtain patient imagery, such as X-rays. While protective gear largely keeps workers within a safe range of radiation exposure, absorbing a little bit is still inevitable.

Quick and measurable response

Radiation doses creeping above regulated guidelines pose risk for developing conditions such as cancer, cataracts, skin irritation or thyroid disease. “Currently, radiology workers are required to wear badges, called dosimeters, on various parts of their bodies for monitoring their radiation exposure,” said Babak Ziaie, Purdue professor of electrical and computer engineering. “They wear the badges for a month or two, and then they send them to the company that made them. But it takes weeks for the company to read the data and send a report back to the hospital. Ours give an instant reading at much lower cost.”

The success of the badge lies in the quick and measurable response of yeast to radiation: The higher the radiation dose, the higher the percentage of yeast cells that die. Wetting the badge activates the cells that are still alive to eat glucose and release carbon dioxide – the same fermentation process responsible for brewing beer and making bread rise.

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