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Great Lakes Article:

They swim. They glow. And they could fight terrorism, thanks to Milwaukee scientists
By Tom Held
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
08/12/03


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 threats.

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 congressional approval.

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 systems.

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 attacks.

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 closings.

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 Protection Agency.

The WATER Institute's research will also expand scientific knowledge of the Great Lakes, Klump said.

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