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News from the National Academies
Date: June 20, 2001
Contacts: Jennifer Wenger, Media Relations Associate
Christian Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

For Immediate Release

Publication Announcement

Advances in Biotechnology Show Promise
For Improving Army Readiness, Soldier Survival

Recent strides in biotechnology offer the promise of new and innovative applications -- from edible vaccines to protein-based electronics components. But while new developments are intended to improve productivity, efficiency, and quality of life, there is the potential for these technologies to be employed for sinister purposes as well -- as biological weapons, for example. A new report from the National Academies' National Research Council examines ways in which biotechnology might be used by the Army, not for offensive weapons, but for applications that will improve the survivability and effectiveness of U.S. soldiers in battle.

With further research, biotechnology may have the same dramatic impact on the Army that information technology is having on its operations today, the report contends. Biosensors and biologically inspired materials could protect ground troops from threats, seen and unseen, on the battlefield, while the latter also could reduce the sizable loads that battalions of soldiers must carry with them. In addition, biocomputers could provide robust data storage capabilities and biomedical developments could be especially important in treating wounds and speeding the recovery process for casualties in combat.

The report examines current directions in biotech research and applications, and identifies opportunities most relevant to the Army, which requested the study to help plan its science and technology program for the next 25 years.

Future applications considered by the committee that wrote the report include:

Biosensors. Sensors are needed to signal the presence of pathogens, toxic chemicals, or other environmental threats to unsuspecting troops. Biosensors could detect threats directly in air or water or be used to monitor individual soldiers for symptoms of exposure to a harmful substance.
    Currently, "biochips" as small as postage stamps are capable of performing sophisticated chemical analyses. In the future, a network of biosensors, some perhaps worn as wristwatch-like devices, might be used to augment other intelligence sources, such as infrared sensors, to give commanders a more complete picture of the battlefield. Biosensor systems also might trigger the release of an antidote or activate a protective mask upon detecting a harmful substance.

    Biomaterials and biologically inspired materials. Biomaterials are organic or synthetic materials that are compatible with the human body. Because of the nature of the injuries that soldiers incur, one of the overriding goals in this area is to produce materials that can heal wounds, repair bones, and self-replicate. Innovations in tissue engineering, such as cartilage repair and replacement, and the use of stem cells to replace dead or damaged tissue, could help advance this goal.
      Some materials in nature are so intricate in their design -- and so effective in their performance -- that they can serve as models for highly functional materials. Biologically inspired materials mimic complex biological structures, whereas hybrid materials contain biological elements that enhance their properties. Such materials could provide soldiers with armor as hard as an abalone shell or with coatings that absorb radiation to avoid detection by an enemy.

      Molecular electronics. Advances in genomics and DNA analysis are leading to new developments in molecular electronics and biocomputing. Devices that incorporate the protein bacteriorhodopsin utilize its unique abilities to convert light into other forms of energy for optical and electronic applications such as artificial retinas and computer memories. In addition, because biomolecular electronics components and devices exhibit a high resistance to electromagnetic radiation, they could reduce the vulnerability of critical military computer and communications systems in rugged combat environments.

      Biological energy sources. Biologically derived fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, already provide alternative renewable energy sources. In addition, solar-cell energy converters designed to imitate plants or photosynthetic bacteria may substantially increase the efficiency at which solar energy is converted into electricity. What's more, if the solar cell were a thin coating on a piece of military equipment, it could provide a renewable form of energy with virtually no increase to a soldier's load.

      From the infinitesimally complex queries into the structure of DNA and proteins to the broad ethical questions concerning how genetic information is put to use, the report acknowledges that many obstacles need to be addressed before biotechnology can become part of the Army's mode of operation. Biosensor systems need to be made more versatile, and small molecules that flag the presence of biohazards need to be identified. Proteins that can enable growth of synthetic materials on biological surfaces to improve biocompatibility have yet to be discovered. And new techniques are needed to identify protein functions and optimize the design of new proteins through genetic engineering for myriad possible applications.

      The committee also identified administrative elements that are critical to the Army's success. Since the commercial sector has already made great strides in biotech research, the Army should closely monitor industry and academic research and develop effective ways to team with industry and key government agencies.

      Although nearly all commercial biotech research is currently focused on medicine, many important Army applications will be nonmedical in nature and lack commercial appeal. To contribute to, interpret, and influence developments, the Army should build an in-house cadre of experts. Professionals with knowledge in both engineering and biology should be sought, the committee said.

      The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Army. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

      Read the full text of Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications for free on the web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


      NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
      Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
      Board on Army Science and Technology

      Committee on Opportunities in Biotechnology for Future Army Applications

      Michael R. Ladisch*(chair)
      Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Biological Engineering, and
      Director, Laboratory of Renewable Resource Engineering
      Purdue University
      West Lafayette, Ind.

      Ilhan A. Aksay
      Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and Princeton Materials Institute
      Princeton University
      Princeton, N.J.

      Eric Baer
      Herbert Henry Dow Professor
      Department of Macromolecular Science, and
      Director, Center on Hierarchical Structures
      Case Western Reserve University
      Cleveland

      Robert R. Birge
      Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, and
      Director, W.M. Keck Center for Molecular Electronics
      Syracuse University
      Syracuse, N.Y.

      Roger Brent
      Associate Director
      Molecular Sciences Institute
      Berkeley, Calif.

      Shiela H. DeWitt
      Director for Business Development
      ArQule Inc.
      Woburn, Mass.

      Mauro Ferrari
      Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Internal Medicine (Oncology); and Director,
      Biomedical Engineering Center
      Ohio State University
      Columbus

      Christopher C. Green
      Executive Director for Research and Development and Chief Technical Officer - Asia Pacific
      General Motors Corp.
      New Baltimore, Mich.

      Nile F. Hartman
      Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
      Photonic Sensor Systems Inc.
      Atlanta

      Paul E. Laibinis
      Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering
      Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      Cambridge

      Verne L. Lynn
      Independent Consultant, and
      Director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (retired)
      Williamsburg, Va.

      M. Allen Northrup
      Vice President and Chief Technical Officer
      Cepheid Inc.
      Sunnyvale, Calif.

      Thomas C. Ransohoff
      Vice President for Operations
      TranXenoGen Inc.
      Shrewsbury, Mass.

      Daniel I.C. Wang*
      Institute Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Biochemical Engineering
      Massachusetts Institute of Technology
      Cambridge

      Janet Westpheling
      Associate Professor of Genetics
      University of Georgia
      Athens

      Kensall D. Wise*
      Associate Dean for Research
      College of Engineering;
      J. Reid and Polly Anderson Professor of Manufacturing Technology; and
      Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
      University of Michigan
      Ann Arbor

      RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

      Robert J. Love
      Study Director

      * Member, National Academy of Engineering