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Environmental biomarkers provide early warning of disease

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Outbreaks of Avian flu or "bird flu" during the past several years have disrupted the poultry industry. More ominous is that the virus spreads to humans. The ability to identify this disease early on may help prevent epidemics that wreak havoc on a country's economy and take lives.

Now, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, through the multi-year Environmental Biomarkers Initiative (EBI), are developing new techniques and tools for identifying these early warning signals also known as environmental biomarkers.

Environmental biomarkers are biomolecular signatures--a set of proteins, genes, metabolites, or lipids--that when expressed together present a unique pattern of molecular change in an organism and identify a response to a specific environmental stressor. These signatures may indicate a specific biological response to pollution, subtle changes in the environment, or deliberate releases of toxic substances.

Disease in organisms and damage to the environment are progressive events that may take days, months, or even years before showing outward symptoms. The goal is to identify early indicators, before the damage is done. "Uncovering these environmental biomarkers may allow health care professionals and environmental managers to reverse the chain of events that could otherwise lead to permanent damage," said Ellyn Murphy, EBI Lead.

"How many times have we heard, 'if we had caught the disease earlier, it could have been cured?'" Murphy said. "Discovering molecular signals early may allow us to manage the long-term damage to individuals and ecosystems associated with pollution from everyday sources such as traffic and industry."

A particular concern is the health effects of engineered nanomaterials that are increasingly being used by industry. Nanomaterials often display different properties from their macroscale counterparts, which put regulators in a bind in assessing the toxicity of these materials. "Rapid screening methods for assessing the biological activity of nanomaterials is one aspect of biomarker discovery that will have direct impact on emerging health concerns," Murphy said.

According to Murphy, the health impacts of engineered nanomaterials-microscopic materials containing particles down to one millionth of a millimeter in size-is a future direction of the Environmental Protection Agency's particulate matter research program. This direction fits nicely with PNNL's expertise in nanomaterials and research on modeling and understanding the respiratory tract.

A second focus area that also relies on an understanding of the respiratory system is the discovery of biomarkers associated with zoonotic agents. Zoonotic agents, such as anthrax, can jump between animals and humans and are a major concern in biodefense. As with nanomaterials, the entry point is the respiratory system and early biomarkers for exposure and response are needed to manage and prevent widespread outbreaks.

The final focus area within EBI involves applying biomarker discovery to ecosystem damage. "This is perhaps the most challenging area within EBI because it involves the development of several tools to probe genes, proteins, and metabolites to understand both the structure and function of a complex subsurface community in the absence of the genome for specific members of that community," Murphy said. "Clearly this is high-risk but extremely high-impact to the future of environmental management."

EBI is building on PNNL's extensive investments in systems biology, proteomics, visual analytics and data fusion, and cellular imaging, as well as the Laboratory's core capabilities in environmental science, toxicology, and material science, to name a few.

"Prediction is the scientific challenge of the 21st century," Murphy continued. "And Environmental Biomarkers could fundamentally change the way we approach environmental health, assessment, and management. It is a tremendous challenge but very exciting."



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