(Inside Science TV) -- They're bold, bright and hard to miss: reflectors make sure what needs to be seen, is seen, even in dark conditions.
"You can find them on road markings, running shoes, on bicycles," said Balakrishnan Raja, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering at the University of Houston.
Now, the same reflectors you see around town have made their way into Raja's lab.
"What's new about what we're doing is we are miniaturizing them," said Paul Ruchhoeft, an electrical engineer at the university.
Ruchhoeft and Raja are manufacturing new reflectors so small that about 200 of them can fit on the dot of this letter "i." When they are placed on a biochemical chip, they can detect diseases quickly.
"The miniaturization is essential because all human pathogenic agents such as bacteria and viruses are tiny," said Raja.
The miniscule reflectors could be used to test for common viruses and bacteria. It's essentially a "lab-on-a-chip."
"It's a detection device, so it would let you see whether or not that agent is present in the sample that you've collected," said Raja.
A sample of fluid flows through the tiny channels on the chip. If it contains a labeled bacteria or virus, dark spots appear on the reflectors. If there are no pathogens, the reflectors shine brightly.
"After the biomolecules have been detected, they block the light from the surface," said Ruchhoeft.
The chip could potentially detect seven different diseases at once. The technology could be used by first responders or in the doctor’s office to diagnose common diseases in 30 minutes or less.
It's a new way to use a simple technology we see everywhere.
"The potential for having a big impact and saving lives exists, and that's very exciting," said Ruchhoeft.
The chip can also be used to detect bio-terrorism agents. Although the research is still in the lab stage, researchers are hoping to have a test they can use in the field available in the next few years.