Army fatigues may never change color, but scientists at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Grounds know they need to adopt the latest advances in genomics to battle modern threats to troops and civilians.
The transition started four years ago when James Valdes, head of the molecular engineering team, was trying to turn off the genetic stress response in E. coli to facilitate the production of proteins. “As we got into this, it became quite obvious that there are a large number of other army applications,” says Valdes, who also serves as the Army’s scientific advisor for biotechnology.
One of those applications involves Gulf War Syndrome, a still-debated condition that may be caused by exposure to low concentrations of chemicals, pesticides, or smoke from burning oil. The risk is ongoing since “[troops] are often in environments that are not up to EPA standards.” Valdes is now researching the gene response to low-level doses of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial materials and has enlisted the help of Akbar Khan, Kevin O’Connell, Jennifer Sekowski, and a team of 20 scientists, students, and a post-doc. Initial results have been positive. “You can’t even tell that these animals were exposed, and they still have gene expression changes,” Sekowski says.
Valdes and company are also working with private industry on a pathogen detection technique with a “microarray focus … to identify sequences that are unique to particular strains of pathogens as well as ones that will identify any strain of a particular species,” O’Connell says. The technology, which many public and private organizations are investigating, would have broad civilian applications, such as for food and water supply safety.
The ECBC also serves the burgeoning genomics industry in Maryland by providing contract biomanufacturing services, mainly for small companies that cannot afford or are not ready for large-scale facilities.
Besides these projects, the team is also working on a name for itself. “We have not thought up a funky acronym yet,” Valdes says.
O’Connell adds, “We are probably unique in the US government for not having a sexy acronym for our research.”
— Diana Jong