Backed by the Pentagon, scientists are recruiting insects, shellfish, bacteria and even weeds to act as “bio-sentinels,” which give early warning of biological and chemical attacks, detect explosives or monitor the spread of contamination.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, biologist Karen Kester uses bugs as “flying, crawling Q-Tips” that can check their habitats for noxious materials from anthrax to chemicals more thoroughly, cheaply, and reliably than human-made sensors.

“You look at what these animals have picked up or ingested while going about their day-to-day activities,” said Kester, whose work is funded by a million-dollar grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The exact details of the funding were not disclosed.

“Insects haven’t been used this way before. No one’s ever looked at what they are naturally picking up to monitor contamination,” she said. “It’s more than bugs fighting terrorism. It’s developing a new kind of technology to detect and map biological and chemical contaminants in the environment.”

Sidewalk weeds go on watch
June Medford, a plant biologist at Colorado State University, said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America were a wakeup call for her and many other scientists who had not previously thought of researching how nature can help domestic defense.

Medford, whose work is also funded by DARPA, is genetically modifying common weeds like the ones found in sidewalk cracks to make them change color if exposed to a biochemical attack.

Her research may be the high-tech answer to the canaries that miners once carried underground to warn of toxic fumes.

“The goal is to get a plant to have a simple color change that anyone could recognize, and that the Department of Defense could look down at with their satellites,” Medford said.

In the event of a chemical or biological attack, first responders could better know where to don chemical suits and areas which the public should avoid, she said.

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