This high-risk, high-reward EAGER project is focused on developing an instrument that can be used to detect viruses and viral fragments associated with atmospheric aerosols in real time in the field. The development of this instrument represents the first step towards answering a number of questions about the modes of atmospheric transport for viruses associated with submicron particles. It is hoped that the instrument will eventually find application in airborne virus monitoring.
The instrument to be developed is a condensation matrix assisted laser desorption ionization-aerosol time-of-flight mass spectrometer (cMALDI-ATOFMS). This instrument is expected to provide measurements of the size-resolved number fraction of airborne aerosols containing viruses or viral fragments, using in-flight laser desorption/ionization-time-of-flight mass spectrometry. The effort includes the development and optimization of a three-stage condensation system (cMALDI) to grow submicron, virus-laden particles to the aerodynamically and optically large sizes, needed for ATOFMS optical detection. Laboratory experiments using the cMALDI system will be used to develop calibrations utilizing mixtures of proteins and nucleic acids incorporated into monodisperse submicrometer-to-supermicrometer test particles. These mixtures will be nebulized and used as tests to tune the ATOFMS settings towards biomolecular detection. Individual, bare viruses will be aerosolized via electrospray, such that the signal from a virus is clearly distinguished from background molecules. If successful, these will be the first measurements enabling virus detection at the single aerosol particle level via mass spectrometry.
This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.