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Tomas Diaz de la Rubia

Tomas Diaz de la Rubia
Associate Director of Chemistry and Materials Science

A Multidisciplinary Attack on Bioterrorism

THE most promising scientific fields of the new century are emerging at the boundaries between historically separate disciplines. This is especially true in the fields of chemistry, biology, materials science, and physics. For example, chemists are using atomic force microscopes to reveal the structure of viruses, and physicists are developing sensors that can detect minute quantities of airborne pathogens. Meanwhile, extraordinary breakthroughs in nanoscience—the study of materials at a billionth-of-a-meter resolution—are giving scientists the ability to manipulate individual molecules in their natural environment and develop complex molecular machines the size of microbes and even smaller.
As described in the article Life at the Nanoscale, Livermore’s BioSecurity and Nanosciences Laboratory (BSNL) has put together teams of chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers to pursue research at the intersection of the physical and biological sciences. The BSNL research teams, composed of staff from Chemistry and Materials Science (CMS) and partnering directorates at Livermore, are using some of the most advanced imaging and analytical instruments in the nation.
Livermore has the opportunity—and the duty—to strengthen homeland security by helping prevent a bioterrorist act and strengthening the nation’s response should one occur. BSNL’s most important mission is to develop new ways to detect, image, and understand bacterial and viral pathogens that might be used in a bioterrorist attack. As the article details, several BSNL scientists are also analyzing the changes in blood serum proteins as a way to provide an early warning system for the onset of disease resulting naturally or from terrorist agents.
The knowledge and techniques gained from BSNL research projects are sure to improve human health and environmental remediation efforts by shedding new light on how microbes function and are structured. I also expect that the technology being developed for new biodetectors and sensors will be adapted to advance the Laboratory’s long-standing missions in defense and stockpile stewardship, especially in monitoring changes in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
BSNL’s organization and research efforts match well with the needs of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Genomics:GTL Program (previously called Genomes to Life) for understanding the proteins encoded by the human genome. This major initiative, which follows the Human Genome Project, notably calls for well-integrated, multidisciplinary research teams. We believe that by partnering with Livermore’s Biology and Biotechnology Research Program Directorate, BSNL scientists can make an important contribution to the national Genomics:GTL Program. BSNL researchers are already building intracellular probes for tracking proteins and studying their interactions with other proteins.
One of the most exciting attributes of BSNL is the sizable number of young researchers. We have tried to institute a supportive environment within BSNL for the brightest young scientists we can find. We’re providing them with the most advanced resources to help them flourish as they explore new ideas that other institutions might consider too risky to support. The quality of our research environment is proving to be a magnet for university collaborations and for recruiting outstanding new graduates. Several Lawrence fellows have joined BSNL, plus we have young researchers completing their Ph.D.s and a growing number of college summer students. Many students working at BSNL are being trained in the physical sciences but are interested in solving challenging problems in biology.
We’re reaching out to potential sponsors for BSNL projects, such as DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the Office of Science and the National Institutes of Health. Our research is extremely relevant to these federal agencies. We’re also strengthening partnerships with other Livermore directorates whose scientists have skills that complement those in CMS.
BSNL scientists are using their skills and creativity and Livermore’s unmatched resources to make a significant contribution to the war on terrorism. I am confident that our multidisciplinary approach will also produce substantial gains in medicine, environmental remediation, and scientific understanding of the machinery of life.


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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
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UCRL-52000-04-5 | May 7, 2004