Researchers develop nano-sensor to detect pesticides on fruit in minutes

SWEDEN – Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have developed a tiny sensor for detecting pesticides on fruits in just a few minutes.

The technique, described as a proof-of-concept in a paper in the journal Advanced Science, uses flame-sprayed nanoparticles made from silver to increase the signal of chemicals.

Despite the fact that it is still in an early stage, the researchers hope these nano-sensors could help uncover food pesticides before consumption.

According to Georgios Sotiriou, Principal Researcher at the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology, Karolinska Institutet, and the study’s corresponding Author, reports show that up to half of all fruits sold in the EU contain pesticide residues that in larger quantities have been linked to human health problems.

“However, current techniques for detecting pesticides on single products before consumption are restricted in practice by the high cost and cumbersome manufacturing of its sensors.

“To overcome this, we developed inexpensive and reproducible nano-sensors that could be used to monitor traces of fruit pesticides at, for example, the store,” said Sotiriou.

The new nano-sensors employ a 1970s discovery known as surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS), a powerful sensing technique that can increase the diagnostic signals of biomolecules on metal surfaces by more than 1 million times.

The technology has been used in several research fields, including chemical and environmental analysis, as well as to detect biomarkers for various diseases. However, high production costs and limited batch-to-batch reproducibility have so far hindered widespread application in food safety diagnostics.

In the current study, the researchers created a SERS nano-sensor by using flame spray – a well-established and cost-effective technique for depositing metallic coating – to deliver small droplets of silver nanoparticles onto a glass surface.

“The flame spray can be used to quickly produce uniform SERS films across large areas, removing one of the key barriers to scalability,” says Haipeng Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Sotiriou’s lab and the study’s first author.

To test the sensors’ practical application, the researchers calibrated them to detect low concentrations of parathion-ethyl, a toxic agricultural insecticide that is banned or restricted in most countries.

A small amount of parathion-ethyl was placed on the part of an apple. The residues were later collected with a cotton swab that was immersed in a solution to dissolve the pesticide molecules. The solution was dropped on the sensor, which confirmed the presence of pesticides.

The research was funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Karolinska Institutet, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF), and the Swedish Research Council.

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