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June 25, 2001
Volume 79, Number 26
CENEAR 79 26 pp. 13
ISSN 0009-2347
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Exploiting advances in biologically based devices could enhance combat


Soldiers of the future may look much like their counterparts today, but rapid advances in biotechnology will ensure that the Army will probably function much differently.

A just-released National Research Council report documents possible futuristic biotech developments beyond the realm of biological warfare that the Army may be able to harness for its own needs. And "it highlights how pervasive biotechnology is becoming," NCR study director Robert J. Love says.

The Army could enhance combat effectiveness over the next 25 years by exploiting the anticipated wealth of discoveries in biologically based sensors, materials, electronics, and energy that will flow from the private sector and from its own eventual R&D program. But first the Army has "to develop the capabilities to act on opportunities as they arise," says study chairman Michael R. Ladisch, Purdue University professor of bioengineering. And, he adds, "Army scientists and engineers must expand their understanding of biology's role in research leading to military applications."

As the needs of the military are quite different from the medical applications now flowing from the commercial market, the report calls on the Army to assemble its own group of scientists and engineers to translate "advances in the biosciences into engineering practice." But Harvard University molecular biology professor Matthew S. Meselson, who reviewed drafts of the study, cautions that "it is very difficult to find people who are both abreast of current science and in tune with the needs of the military."

And what are those needs?

Imagine wristwatch-sized sensors that detect toxic threats in air and water. Or biological markers that help distinguish your own troops from the enemy to cut back on "friendly fire." Imagine advances in materials that yield protein-based solar cells mimicking the photosynthetic process of plants or bacteria. Then imagine these solar cells being coated thinly on equipment to provide soldiers with a renewable energy source without adding to their loads--and making electronic detection more difficult. And, finally, imagine functional foods containing extra nutrients or vaccines to fend off infectious diseases.

Some, like edible vaccines, are now under development. Others, like protein biochips and small-molecule therapeutics for countering infectious diseases or shock, "will be used in the five- to 15-year framework," Ladisch says. Still others, like protein-based holographic methods and tissue implants from stem cells, "will likely require longer times."

All these possibilities tantalize the scientific mind, but Meselson points out that "the Army needs near-term advice on developing a lightweight protective mask," something it has yet to produce. But, then, such masks don't necessarily rely on biotechnology, the focus of this study.

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