Magna Parva's Exolab, which allows samples to be tested on the spot without laboratory facilities

Field laboratory spun out from space technology

An instrument developed to look for life on Mars is at the heart of a portable ‘laboratory in a box’ unveiled at DSEi.

Space technology firm Magna Parva says Exolab can open up the use of sophisticated analytical techniques in military theatres, at forensic scenes and for environmental monitoring in difficult locations. Simple to use and with a low training requirement, it would let non-specialist users carry out faster, lower-cost analysis of solid and liquid samples in the field.

The system’s value is that it integrates all the sample preparation processes necessary even for complex measurements such as DNA analysis or immunoassays, which are normally carried out by highly trained scientists using specialist laboratory facilities.

The system can be adapted to prepare and analyse a given sample (such as soil, water or blood) by selecting the appropriate consumable modules (guided by software), inserting them into the Exolab base unit and connecting them. Typical stages could include reagent addition, mixing, thermal cycling, centrifugation and incubation.

A green or red light indicates the presence or absence of the target substance on the spot, without having to send samples to a distant laboratory and wait for a response.

The sealed modules are disposed of after use, avoiding the risk of cross-contamination.

Magna Parva’s development of Exolab followed on from work it carried out with the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre on the Life Marker Chip instrument, which is intended for use on the international ExoMars mission planned for 2018.

The company is actively looking for ways to apply its technology terrestrially. Chris Day, head of Magna Parva’s defence business, explained: “We’ve taken technology designed for Mars and put it in a box a soldier can take into the field. It will match DNA or test for anthrax without needing a lab technician on site. It’s a field instrument, so it’s not gold-standard, but it’s good enough.”

One potential military use, Day said, might be to help in the unpleasant but necessary task of reassembling body parts for repatriation.

Specific applications being developed for Exolab include medical (disease detection analysis and DNA testing), environmental (soil and water sampling), defence (biological and chemical warfare detection) and agricultural (soil sampling).

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