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Fall/Winter 2001 Vol. 1 No. 2

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Military exercises at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (photo courtesy U.S. Air Force) The Biotech Soldier

How Advances in Biotechnology Could Take Tomorrow's Army to New Levels of Combat Effectiveness

Three months ago most Americans had likely never heard of a place called Kandahar or Mazar-e Sharif. Today, Afghanistan dominates the news as the United States engages feverishly in a war on terrorism.

But a nagging question persists, particularly in the wake of recent anthrax attacks on U.S. civilians: How can the Army improve its preparedness against an enemy that might use chemical or biological weapons?

Advances in biotechnology could prove essential in protecting soldiers and conducting ground warfare in future conflicts, says a new report of the National Research Council. For example, biosensor technologies have the potential to accurately pinpoint a harmful chemical or biological agent in the air or water; they also could be used to monitor an individual soldier for fever, swelling, or other reaction to exposure.

"The possibilities in 25 years are fascinating," says Michael Ladisch, director of the Laboratory of Renewable Resource Engineering at Purdue University and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "A soldier could be wearing a wristwatch device, one of a network of many small bioreceptors. If he encounters a particular pathogen, such as anthrax or smallpox, the receptors would bind to the pathogen much like antibodies bind to a virus when a person fights off a cold." If that should happen, Ladisch says, a signal would be produced, triggering the release of a vaccine or activating a protective mask.

Before such futuristic technologies become part of the Army's routine, however, more work needs to be done. For example, in the Gulf War, chemical detectors had trouble distinguishing between harmful chemicals and substances such as smoke, diesel exhaust, cleaning fluids, and after-shave. Sensors need to be made foolproof, so that benign chemicals aren't mistaken for harmful ones, and harmful chemicals aren't passed over either, the report says. Furthermore, biosensors need to be made smaller and more portable, without compromising their sensitivity to miniscule molecular clues, so that large numbers of samples could be collected on the battlefield. Finally, because any number of chemicals and biological agents could be used against troops, a variety of sensors -- each detecting a different agent -- would need to be used simultaneously to provide full protection.

The report describes other biotechnological innovations that could be used by the Army to help it become a leaner, stronger, and more effective fighting force.

A soldier who has been seriously injured might be treated with biomaterials -- organic or synthetic materials that are compatible with the human body. By providing a suitable environment for the cells to grow, these materials could vastly accelerate the pace at which wounds heal.

A soldier's fatigues might be manufactured of materials that mimic nature, or that incorporate naturally occurring materials. Uniforms might be fitted with protective armor as hard and lightweight as an abalone shell or made of materials that change color to blend in with the environment, much like the camouflage ability of a chameleon. Likewise, tanks and aircraft could be covered with paint derived from a bacterial protein capable of absorbing radiation, thus enabling them to elude radar detection by an enemy.

Troops could lighten their loads significantly by reducing their use of cumbersome fossil fuels and batteries and using smaller, lighter, renewable forms of energy instead. Solar-cell energy converters that imitate the photosynthetic processes of plants could more efficiently convert solar energy into electricity when compared to current commercial technologies. What's more, the solar cell itself might be a thin coating on a soldier's helmet.

And electronics and computing can benefit from research into the structure and function of proteins. Computer memories incorporating the protein bacteriorhodopsin have demonstrated vast increases in memory capacity. The protein is also resistant to electromagnetic radiation, and could be used to make military computer, communications, and electronics systems capable of withstanding the effects of nuclear or other high-radiation weapons.
-- Jennifer Wenger

Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications. Committee on Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications, Board on Army Science and Technology, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2001, 118 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07555-6; available from the National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $27.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The chair of the committee was Michael Ladisch, distinguished professor in agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering, and director of the Laboratory of Renewable Resource Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of the Army.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences