You are here

Research Spotlight: Advancing SERS to a Field Technology for Food Defense

Thursday, April 30, 2015

This project transitions previously funded laboratory-based Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopic (SERS) research to a field ready technology for rapid and reliable detection of toxins and pathogens in food.  An innovative sample preparation technique and evaluation procedure has been developed for use with a handheld Raman instrument for detection outside of the laboratory.


Previous SERS detection research utilized a bench-top Raman instrument.  These laboratory units can cost more than $100,000. For field application, a less expensive, handheld Raman device is required.  While handheld Raman instruments are currently used by some food and drug companies for validation of incoming materials, they have not been used in agent detection for food defense.

Advancing SERS to a Field Technology for Food Defense


An innovative field evaluation system has been developed that builds on previous aptamer-based SERS research for detecting ricin and anthrax spores in milk and orange juice. Three SERS detection methods previously studied used immunomagnetic separation (IMS), antibody, and aptamers-based SERS.  The aptamer-based method provides optimal consistency and accuracy.  In order to transition this technology for field deployment, the team has fabricated a prototype using a filter syringe system integrated SERS substrate for readout by a handheld Raman spectrometer.  The filter allows targets of low concentration captured and concentrated.

Transition partner Agiltron Inc., Woburn, Massachusetts is collaborating with the team in transiting the technology and laboratory prototypes into manufacturable products.


This innovative system reduces sample preparation steps and analytical time for on-site readings.  The cost of a handheld Raman spectrometer is $20,000 to 50,000 significantly less than a standard instrument.  Operating the system does not require highly technical or laboratory training.  The method and substrate can be easily modified to detect other targets for use by a broad range of users.

To facilitate use of the SERS in agent detection, the investigator is also developing an online database which will centralize data from existing SERS research including spectral features of toxins researched, matrices tested, SERS spectra, instrumental parameters, etc.

Key Users

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
• Department of Defense
• U.S. Department of Agriculture
• U.S. Food and Drug Administration
• DHS Customs and Border Patrol
• Food Industry

Project Dates

• 2014-2015

Co-Principal Investigators:

Lili He, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Food Science
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


This project is funded through the National Center for Food Protection and Defense by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs through Award Number 2010-ST-061-FD0001.