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May 20, 2002
Volume 80, Number 20
CENEAR 80 20 pp. 32-36
ISSN 0009-2347

Spiders, Fireflies, And Microbes

Spider venom, an enzyme that triggers a firefly's luminescence, and a microbe to spur plant growth are the bases of research projects with a past in Soviet weapons work and a potential future in commercial products.

And they are among 30 PNNL research projects that are part of a Department of Energy program to help former Soviet weapons scientists find new jobs using their research and laboratories to make commercial products rather than weapons.

The goal of the nonproliferation and national security program--Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP)--is to reduce the global threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons developed in four countries of the former Soviet Union. PNNL's focus is primarily biological, matching the lab's expertise, says Ronald Nesse, senior program manager.

The U.S. lab sits in the middle, searching through and validating the former Soviet research projects while looking for commercial applications and a Western corporate partner.

The program, Nesse says, hopes to stanch the scientific brain drain of weapons scientists and stabilize the research institutes so they can avoid selling their services around the world.

"These institutes," he says, "have unique ways of doing research, which are important to keep alive."

The labs, he says, are isolated physically and intellectually with few ties to the West and have even been cut off from other research programs within the former Soviet Union. With little commercial expertise, much of their research appears truly fundamental.

Consider the fireflies. For 10 years, Soviet scientists physically captured about 100,000 fireflies each summer, says Evguenia I. Rainina, a Russian scientist who is now a PNNL senior research scientist. The scientists extracted the enzyme that triggers luminescence when exposed to bacteria, studied its genome, and eventually engineered it in their labs.

That enzyme is now being used by a Maryland manufacturer that makes biological detection equipment. The enzyme has proven to be quite sensitive, and its use has cut the cost of the company's detectors from $5,000 to $500, Rainina says, opening a broad market for food processors, farms, hospitals, and restaurants.

Then there is spider venom. Soviet researchers found that some peptides and polyamides in arachnids' venom kill insects but have little effect on mammals. The compounds may open a whole new approach for pest control in homes and farms.

And the microbe plant growth stimulator was also developed in Soviet labs. It is being used by a Washington state turf grass seed company, the largest in the nation. Its use is expected to grow enormously.

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Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Cover Story
Creative chemistry, biology, plus powerful instruments and computers propel Pacific Northwest National Laboratory into proteomics era

Chemistry And Biosciences Are Priorities At PNNL

The Hanford Connection

Biodetection Enabling Analyte Delivery System

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

Spiders, Fireflies, And Microbes

The Virtual Lung

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