Since childhood we’ve been awaiting laser weapons like those in Star Wars and GI Joe – bright, colorful, a pleasant firing beep, and a light beam that propagates slower than sound. Those days may forever stay in our imagination, but down here on Earth, Kong-Thon Tsen, a physics professor at Arizona State, and his son Shaw-Wei, a pathology student at Johns Hopkins, succeeded in applying an unltra-short pulse laser to a virus and killing it without damaging surrounding material.
In the latest research, Tsen and his son demonstrated that their laser technique could shatter the protein shell, or capsid, of the tobacco mosaic virus, leaving behind only a harmless mucus-like mash of molecules.
The laser shattered the capsid at low energy: 40 times lower, in fact, than the energy level that harmed human T-cells. Other types of radiation, like ultraviolet light, kill microbes on produce, but would damage human cells.
The virus-deactivating laser works on a principle called forced resonance. The scientists tune the laser to the same frequency the virus vibrates on. Then they crank up the volume. Like a high-pitched sound shattering glass, the laser vibrates the virus until it breaks.
The Tsens are now testing the device on the HIV and hepatitis viruses right now.
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