A team of researchers has designed a paper capable of transforming into a fully-functioning biological system, with the simple addition of water. Although the idea may be hard to fathom, it could mean the rapid detection of many different viruses, including Ebola.

The technology for freeze-dried life, scientifically referred to as synthetic gene networks, has been around for some time. Unfortunately, it has largely been restricted to laboratory use — that is, until now. Dr. James Collins, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and his team have demonstrated in his latest study how this phenomena can be repeated in real-life settings.

In the past, scientists had struggled to overcome biosafety concerns associated with the technology. According to a press release, this is because the reactions involved have not been practical for field use. The team was able to overcome this danger by manufacturing a cell-free, paper-based system instead. The paper includes transcription and translation enzymes and DNA-encoded genes, which all come to life when introduced to water. “It turned out that this worked really well,” Collins told The Scientist. “These samples would work as well as the fresh-from-frozen stock, and as well as inside a cell.”

The concept of flash-freezing gene networks so that they remain functional once brought back to life is one so far-fetched that few in the scientific world believed it could actually be accomplished. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to work,” Keith Pardee, a post-doc in Collins’s Wyss Institute lab, told The Scientist. “Our simplest system contains 35 proteins and the ribosomes, and I thought there’s just no way we’re going to be able to freeze-dry this and have each one of these proteins to come back at levels that are compatible enough to reconstitute transcription and translation.”

While the finding itself is exciting, it’s possible real-world application will be even more awe-inspiring. "Our paper-based system could not only make tools currently only available in laboratory readily fieldable, but also improve the development of new tools and the accessibility of these molecular tools to educational programs for the next generation of practitioners,” explained Collins in a press release.

This means that scientists are one rather big step closer to developing a low-cost, easy to use and, not to mention, rapid way of detecting an array of viruses. This development could not have come at a more ideal time, as the Ebola outbreak has a global health emergency.

However, the process is not yet perfected. When it comes to something as critical as identifying life-threatening viruses, being able to detect low concentrations of molecules is necessary. Athough the technology’s sensitivity is quite low at the moment, Collins told The Scientist, “I think we’d like to be even lower.”

Source: Collins JJ, Pardee K, Green AA, et al. Paper-Based Synthetic Gene Networks. Cell. 2014