"We etch silicon chips in ways that are very similar to what are used to make Pentium and other computer chips," McDevitt says. "But instead of transistors, we create little test tubes -- these little test tubes are miniature reaction vessels that hold artificial taste buds."
Austin biotech startup LabNow has licensed the technology and is developing it into a system that could be used to diagnose HIV quickly and cheaply. And HIV is likely only the beginning for McDevitt's technology. It can be reprogrammed, he says, to serve numerous application areas by simply changing the system's molecular-level code. He is developing systems for heart disease, cancer and infectious diseases, as well as bioterrorism-screening tools and environmental-monitoring aids.
"It is a lot like putting new software into a computer each time you want to work a new application area," he says. "You need not purchase a new computer; you simply use the existing infrastructure."
McDevitt is working with the Department of Defense to develop detectors that can "sniff" the air for anthrax spores and other bioterrorism agents.