A single test for 600 deadly viruses is being developed by a group of Defra funded scientists, offering the possibility of spotting a disease outbreak in hours rather than days.
The "lab on a chip", which is being led by the Central Science Laboratory near York, with £1.5m funding from Defra, will detect viruses that affect humans, animals, plants, fish and bees including avian influenza, rabies and foot and mouth.
Animal and plant researchers will be able to use the same test to identify many viruses, saving time and resources in the event of an outbreak.
It will also help to identify when a virus has jumped from one species to another and when new strains of existing disease emerge in the future.
The biochip uses microarray technology to identify the viruses. Pieces of DNA of known viruses are attached to a glass slide and then mixed with pieces of DNA from the unidentified virus.
Because matching pieces of DNA will stick together, researchers can identify the unknown virus according to which sections of the chip DNA the new DNA sticks to.
The whole process takes only from a few hours to a day and half - much quicker than traditional methods of virus testing which can take as long as 7-10 days.
Dr Ian Barker, who is leading the work to develop the chip at CSL York, said, "We’re working to make the biochip sensitive enough to distinguish between diseases that have similar symptoms, such as Newcastle disease and bird flu."
"It will also be able to recognise the strains or subtypes of a virus, for example, H5N1 so we’ll know what disease we’re dealing with straight away."
Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Howard Dalton, said, "Identifying the cause of a disease outbreak is vital if we're to put the right actions in place."
"The biochip will help us do this much more quickly and easily, potentially enabling us to deal with future outbreaks even more effectively."
The need for improved detection, identification and monitoring of diseases over the next 10-20 years was set out in the Foresight project led by the Office for Science and Innovation which was presented to Defra in April.