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Sensing Evil

Worst-case scenarios don't come much uglier than the plume of an aerosolized biowarfare agent infiltrating a city. What happens then? Do alarms ring, evacuations and vaccinations begin? Or will anyone even know what the cloud contains? The answer could depend on efforts to improve molecular recognition systems that identify biowarfare agents in the air, water, or food. Problems of accuracy and efficiency that have dogged such technologies for decades are approaching resolution, but even then,

Steve Bunk

Worst-case scenarios don't come much uglier than the plume of an aerosolized biowarfare agent infiltrating a city. What happens then? Do alarms ring, evacuations and vaccinations begin? Or will anyone even know what the cloud contains? The answer could depend on efforts to improve molecular recognition systems that identify biowarfare agents in the air, water, or food. Problems of accuracy and efficiency that have dogged such technologies for decades are approaching resolution, but even then, the real test will remain: to expose a given threat with such speed that "detect-to-treat" becomes "detect-to-warn."

The devices are known as biosensors, a term with many uses in the past. Nowadays, it refers to sensors that are capable of yielding extremely sensitive and specific measurements of contamination by incorporating a biological constituent, such as an antibody, enzyme, nucleic acid, even single or multiple cells. The constituent binds to a given analyte--in this case, a...

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