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Countering Bioterror:
UK Scientists Attack Infectious Diseases

by Alicia P. Gregory

There is no flash of light, no mushroom cloud, no smoke, no smell, no taste. No warning.

Illustration from bioterrorism coverIt will take days, weeks or even months before we discover a microscopic bomb has been detonated and its contagions are spreading undetected. Bioterrorism is insidious, and that fact gives it the power to hold us hostage.

Our innate fear of disabling and deadly infections is driving us to defend ourselves, through reorganizing government surveillance, rebuilding public health infrastructure, increasing public awareness, and developing better vaccines. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an effort to focus on the most likely and deadly threats, compiled a list of "Category A" biological agents: anthrax, botulism toxin, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers.

As the anthrax outbreak of last October illustrated, public education is one of the key steps to reduce the panic associated with infectious diseases. And one important part of that education is gaining basic biological knowledge about these bugs.

The CDC's hit list includes two main types of microbes: bacteria and viruses. Anthrax, plague, and tularemia (as well as other threats like pneumonia and tuberculosis) are caused by bacteria. Bacteria differ from viruses in four important ways: they are far larger, more complex, they reproduce by splitting in two, and only about one percent of all bacteria are harmful. Antibiotics can destroy bacteria; however, misuse and overuse in humans and animals have led to mutated bugs that resist multiple antibiotics that were effective weapons against them just a few years ago.

Smallpox and viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola (as well as the common cold, influenza, and HIV) are caused by viruses. Viruses are parasites; they can't reproduce without commandeering the genetic machinery of a host cell. Viruses mutate when they multiply, and antibiotics can't kill them. Vaccines and a limited number of antiviral drugs are our weapons against viruses.

Research to fight these infectious microbes is under way in labs all over the world, and the University of Kentucky is making its mark with a number of bioterror-related studies. UK scientists are testing a new smallpox vaccine for the military, making fundamental discoveries about the bacteria that cause plague, and finding better ways to protect animals, fruits and vegetables from microbes.

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