Feb 192003
Authors: Bryce Chapman

While the government recommends duct tape and plastic wrap as the latest defense against biological and chemical weapons, CSU biologists have begun studies that could lead to quick and inexpensive ways of detecting such weapons.

These biologists were awarded a grant to study the genetic engineering of plants, making them lose their green color in response to biological and chemical weapons. The grant was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The increasing threat of terrorism presents a great need for simple and robust detectors of harmful biological or chemical weapons,” said June Medford, principal investigator of the study and a biology professor.

The United States has been on orange alert, the second highest terror threat level, since Feb. 7.

In the first phase of the study the team of biologists will be testing the female hormone estrogen as a substitute to harmful biological and chemical weapons. But the result should be the same as if the harmful weapons were used.

Because estrogen, an animal hormone, is foreign to plants, much like biological and chemical weapons, the plants reaction should be the same, Medford said.

The prospect of plants being able to detect harmful airborne agents is especially encouraging because of its practicality, researchers said.

“Plant sentinels, if one can successfully develop such plants, offer a simple and inexpensive way to monitor our environment for harmful chemicals/agents,” said Anireddy Reddy, co-principal investigator and a biology professor.

Although it is unlikely that the plants will be able to detect the agents significantly before human contact, the biologists said, the plants could allow enough time to save lives.

“The plants could provide warnings so people could immediately vacate an affected area, and then experts could verify exactly what that agent is,” Reddy said.

For instance, if the plants detect a chemical weapon in a stadium full of people, it could allow enough time for many to be evacuated unexposed to the agent, Medford said.

“In this case 30 minutes is significant,” Medford said.

In addition to notifying the public immediately of biological and chemical attacks, the plants may serve as detectors of large regions that have been exposed to harmful agents.

“With these plants it may be possible to look down with satellites and see infected parts of the earth,” Medford said.

Just like satellites are able to detect the amount of land that has been devastated by bomb explosions, the satellites will be able to detect areas infected by the agents because of the contrasting colors, Medford said.

The team members, who have yet to be decided, will consist of four post-doctoral candidates and an undetermined number of undergraduate students.

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