York research spotlight: Dr Steve Johnson

DR STEVE JOHNSON, a senior lecturer in the Electronics Department, has been with the University of York since 2012. His research can be referred to as “biologically inspired” or “hybrid biological research”, as it attempts to incorporate electronics with biological systems.

One of his key ideas uses an array of electronics in order to detect what proteins, antibodies, bacteria

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or even drugs may be present in a biological sample, which may benefit diagnostic medicine or improve the idea of personalised medicine. The concept is particularly relevant when dealing with antimicrobial resistance (an issue raised in previous publications). If researchers are able to diagnose what bacteria they are fighting, they can correctly issue drugs needed for that specific bacteria – this same process can also be used to monitor cells. Hybrid Bio-Electronic Device DNA computing is slightly more difficult to understand as a concept.

The basis of it is to solve problems in the same way an electronic device based system would. DNA, however, has potential as it is able to solve the same problem much faster. The best way of explaining this is the ‘travelling salesman’ analogy. A salesman has to get to a number of cities, picking the quickest route to all of them in one sequence. Silicon based electronics will solve this issue by trying each potential route procedurally, then choosing the fastest. DNA is capable of trying all routes at the same time. The current drawback is it takes a long time to then analyse the results from DNA.

The final area of research is in conjunction with the charity Oxfam. Using electronics to detect bacteria in water, the research group looks to implement technology to help undeveloped countries understand and prevent waterborne diseases. This is not an entirely new concept but a key part of this project is ‘co-production’ with the communities affected. The old method detected chemicals that were produced by harmful bacteria. The only problem was that these chemicals were also produced by decaying flora or bacteria that was not harmful.

Implementing a system the community couldn’t understand led to those involved not using perfectly safe tap water. Instead, they resorted to simply collecting rain water, something often scarce in Vanuatu, the small pacific island where the research is based. There are problems caused by the location due to the fact that the many communities are spread across the country’s 80 remote islands, prone to cyclones and other natural disasters, making the research particularly challenging. Dr Steve Johnson’s research within the University covers a number of very different areas, from promising medical diagnostics research, which could help the worldwide antibiotic resistance problem, to research aiding underdeveloped communities in Vanuatu, and actively working with locals on location. His research is often described as confusing but interesting, and poses potentially lifesaving in the future.