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A system and method for detecting the presence of submicron sized particles in a sample taken from the environment. More particularly, the system may be used to detect and identify bacteria by detecting the presence of bacterial pili which have been separated from bacterial cells in the sample. The system includes means for collecting a sample from the environment, separating pili from bacteria in the sample, and purifying and concentrating the submicron sized pili in the sample based on the size of the pili. The purified and concentrated pili are detected with an apparatus which includes an electrospray assembly having an electrospray capillary, a differential mobility analyzer which receives output from the capillary, and a condensation particle counting device for counting the number of pili sized particles that pass through the differential mobility analyzer.