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Winter 2002

Safe Keeping
By Beth Forbes

Areas where Lechtenberg sees the need for improvement include:
Detection and monitoring capabilities: Being able to detect diseases early and being able to contain them is essential, Lechtenberg says.

"Great Britain probably had foot-and-mouth disease for days or weeks before they realized they had a problem," he says. "An animal disease outbreak, or a crop disease outbreak, such as 1971's Southern corn leaf blight, can decimate an industry."

Identifying microbes in people, food and crops has been a major focus of research at Purdue for the past few years, and scientists have already made great strides in detection of microbes. For example, in 2000 a Purdue research team announced that it was the first to successfully attach a protein to a computer chip. Scientists say that in coming years such biochips will be able to detect minute amounts of hazardous germs or chemicals. To attach the proteins to the computer chips, the scientists used the tools of an emerging branch of science--nanotechnology.

Lechtenberg says linking engineering and biology is a key to accomplish this. "This merger of engineering and biology offers the potential to correct many of these security problems," he says. "We have scientists at work on these types of projects, but the successes can't come soon enough. Fortunately, we are making rapid progress."

Inventory: A list of hazardous materials and biological agents needs to be compiled, and then industries, universities and farms should check to see if those items exist at their location. It's not just large institutions that need this inventory, Lechtenberg points out. For example, farms may contain hazardous materials.

Secure facilities: Before this summer, most agricultural researchers and farmers weren't too concerned about unknown visitors in the buildings or about fairly open access to their facilities. That may have to change, but Lechtenberg points out that security will be expensive.

"It could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to have electronic key security at the laboratories at each research university in the nation," he says. "It would cost Purdue $3 to $5 million."

 

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