latter set of interactions might be for society, they are beyond the scope of this report.2


In the past few years many people have come to think of biological threats only in the context of war or terrorism. However, natural biological threats have existed throughout history and still exist today. We need to look no further than recent outbreaks of sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), swine influenza, and avian influenza to see that disease organisms can evolve, adapt, and cause epidemics.

Early Detection and Intervention

The appropriate defense always involves a medicinal attack on such organisms; however, early response to a disease depends on early recognition. In some cases, this means recognition of a weak disease “signal” in the noise of everyday life. To that end, information scientists have begun to collect data about symptoms posted on public health and popular medicine Web sites and have used that information to look for increased incidences and the appearance of clustered events.

In addition to its use in detecting chemical threats from a distance, spectroscopy can be used for remote sensing of pollutant molecules from individual automobiles under normal driving conditions to find and eliminate the worst polluters. Similarly, the remote, noninvasive identification of diseased individuals, by detecting thermal or chemical signals, is used to find and give early treatment to people who are not otherwise recognizably sick. Today there are devices that can “smell” cancer by detecting the metabolites of specific cancer cells (Rovner, 2008). Such identification and treatment could reduce the severity of disease in an individual or mitigate the spread of infectious disease in the larger population. This becomes increasingly important as people fly around the globe within a day and geographical barriers to the spread of disease fall.

In addition to the direct effects of disease in individuals, humans’ experience with “mad cow” disease and the swine and avian influenza viruses points to the importance of animal health and welfare and highlights the threat that zoonotic diseases such as the West Nile virus pose to the larger human population. This threat can be to health itself or to the economy. In 2001, Great Britain fought a battle against foot and mouth disease (FMD), a highly contagious virus, slaughter-


Some of these areas were explored in the recently released NRC report Inspired by Biology—From Molecules to Materials to Machines (National Research Council, 2008).

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