Scientists at the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) National Research Initiative (NRI) in New York have created a new device that may provide a faster, easier and more reliable way to test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The tool targets prions, which are the cause of BSE. Prions are abnormally structured proteins that convert normal proteins into an abnormal form.

The Associated Press adds that a better method of prion testing than is currently available is crucial to allay public fears, ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply and enhance international trade.

“The real challenge is going to be to build an automated device that can take blood from a cow in the field and give a rapid response to whether prions are present,” says Harold Craighead at Cornell University. “At the moment we only test cows when they fall over, but that is the last stage of the disease. It would be ideal to test cows a lot earlier, and this test could be the ticket.”

CSREES funded this research project through the NRI Nanoscale Science and Engineering for Agriculture and Food Systems program. Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future.