They swim. They glow. And they
could fight terrorism, thanks to Milwaukee scientists
By Tom Held
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The same Pentagon agency that considered creating a commodities
market to predict terrorist attacks is paying local scientists
to turn zebra fish into glowing detectors of chemical
contamination in sources of drinking water.
Like its financial backer - the Defense Advanced Research
Project Agency - the Milwaukee-based Center for Water
Security will stretch scientific boundaries in search
of technological advantages over terrorists and natural
In this case, about 15 scientists working in the University
of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute are
spending $2 million in Defense Department money to find
ways to protect the country's water supply, particularly
large natural reservoirs such as Lake Michigan. Another
$1 million in funding for the center's research is awaiting
The experiment melding inch-long zebra fish with fireflies
is one of nine projects being pursued at the center, which
officially opened June 30.
Assistant Director Michael Carvan has been experimenting
with zebra fish for more than three years, injecting the
tiny eggs with genes from fireflies. The gene-enhanced
zebra fish emit a glow that's visible under high-powered
microscopes when they react to chemicals accumulated in
Their glowing bodies serve as bio-sentinels warning of
chemical contamination that would otherwise be undetectable.
Carvan has succeeded in creating zebra fish that glow
but has not yet created ones that transfer the gene from
one generation to the next.
"Somebody has to take those wild, creative ideas
and see if they can have a real-world application,"
said Carrie Lewis, superintendent of the Milwaukee water
works. "They're looking to be able to monitor and
detect contaminants before they can do harm."
Stretching science has been part of the core of the defense
agency since its inception in the late 1950s. Recently,
it stretched too far in the eyes of many, toying with
creation of a commodities market to predict terrorist
That initiative drew sharp criticism and led to the resignation
of former Admiral John Poindexter, who served as a consultant
to the agency and led its Information Awareness Office.
J. Val Klump, the WATER Institute director and senior
scientist, said the projects funded by the Defense Department
will focus on early detection of biological or chemical
contamination, the response and remedy.
Research projects under way include:
An effort to create a fiber-optic sensor network that
would monitor water supplies leaving the treatment plant
and report chemical changes at the speed of light.
Development of a model that would predict the movement
and spread of a contaminant in the atmosphere or a large
body of fresh water.
The use of molecular techniques and DNA fingerprinting
to identify bacterial pathogens and create high-speed
tests for bacterial contamination responsible for beach
Much of the research will focus on identifying pathogens
among the millions and millions of benign bacteria found
in Lake Michigan, Klump said.
"The most difficult thing is to screen for a contaminant
that you don't know," said Diane VanDe Hei, executive
director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.
The association serves as a trade group for roughly 500
municipal water utilities.
VanDe Hei said the work done by scientists at the Center
for Water Security would complement research done by the
American Water Works Association and the Environmental
The WATER Institute's research will also expand scientific
knowledge of the Great Lakes, Klump said.