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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Health Note/Gene Alert

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on research done by the U.S. army to develop an early warning genetic test for exposure to bioterrorism.


CURWOOD: Our story about the methane boom in the Rockies continues in just a minute, with a look at some of the people benefiting from the drilling. First, this Environmental Health Note from Diane Toomey.

[MUSIC: Health Note Theme]

TOOMEY: People exposed to anthrax, smallpox, and other pathogens by way of bio-terrorism may take days to develop symptoms. By then it's often too late to save them. So Army researchers hope to develop an early detection system based on genes that react to toxins almost immediately after exposure.

A team from the Walter Reed Army Institute took human cells, as well as a small group of primates, and exposed them to toxins such as anthrax, cholera, and botulism. When a gene is activated, it eventually results in the production of a protein. But the activated gene also produces its own unique RNA. So, after exposure, researchers gathered up all the RNA produced by the activated genes, tagged it with a fluorescent dye, and poured it over a so-called gene chip that contained genes likely to be turned on by a toxin. For instance, those that deal with inflammatory responses.

This process is a bit like fitting together pieces of a puzzle, since RNA will always lock on to its corresponding gene. The fluorescent RNA that found a matching gene stuck to the chip and indicated that gene had been turned on by a toxin. Researchers found that each toxin produced a different gene pattern, so they hope this technology will not only allow for early detection of bio-terrorism, but will also enable them to pinpoint the exact pathogen.

That's this week's Environmental Health Note. I'm Diane Toomey.


CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.



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