Scientists Discover New Sides to Everyday Napkin

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    By Andrea Pyka

    Napkins sure have come a long way. No longer just collectors of grease smudges and food crumbs, napkin surfaces are now being reinvented to fight infectious diseases.
    Researchers at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology have created a napkin that can identify harmful microbes on food and other surfaces.
    Antje Baeumner, associate professor for the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University helped create the single-use napkin.
    "It only detects what we would like it to detect," Baeumner said. "If we say it should only detect E. coli, it will only detect that."
    With the recent discovery of E. coli in spinach still fresh in many people’s minds, many people are becoming more skeptical of what they eat. Victor Banuelos, a third-year student at UCSC who works at the Cowell Dining Commons, thinks the napkin could bring positive changes to his work environment.
    "It would benefit the dining hall, because it could detect harmful bacterium," Banuelos said.
    Researchers at Cornell University are still in the process of perfecting the napkin, but hope it will be used widespread to help detect different types of toxins.
    With just one swipe, the napkin-made out of nanofibers that are coated with biological recognition molecules, antibodies, proteins and dyes-can determine whether or not there are harmful germs lurking on a particular surface.
    If the napkin identifies the presence of dangerous microbes, it will turn red when dipped into the accompanying labeling solution.
    Although Baeumner cannot name a fixed price for the napkin, she maintains that it will be easily accessible and estimates that it could range in price from a few cents to one dollar.
    Baeumner said it will take approximately three to five years for the napkin to have widespread use. The first applications will most likely be used in the food production industries, she said.
    While the kitchen is a common breeding ground for harmful bacteria, daycare centers and senior citizen communities also tend to breed bacteria.
    Gaby Litsky of the Child Care Services at UCSC said the on-campus day care facility cares about having a clean environment for the children. Due to the tight quarters in daycares, germs thrive easily and can spread rapidly through contact.
    The average toddler is likely to get sick about eight times a year from germs they have come into contact with.
    Although Litsky said the napkin could help teach the children about the importance of clean surfaces, she also notes that it is beneficial to be exposed to certain bacteria, as exposure to some germs builds up a person’s immune system.
    "How much of a germ-free environment are we going to have?" Litsky asked. "We live in a world with germs."