The Friend or Foe program aims to develop biosurveillance technology that can detect bacterial pathogens as, or even before, they threaten the military and homeland. The goal of the program is to quickly determine whether an unknown bacterium is harmless or virulent by directly identifying pathogenic behavior, avoiding conventional strategies that rely on known biomarkers.
The risk posed by unknown bacteria is increasing as the global environment changes, populations expand, and tools for genetic engineering proliferate. After new pathogens emerge, they can easily spread due to increased global travel among dense urban centers. Any one of these unfamiliar strains might pose a health risk to deployed service members—especially among first responders to outbreaks of infectious disease.
Current biosurveillance strategies based on biochemical markers fall short in identifying potentially harmful bacteria since they do not work on undiscovered bacterial strains or on bacteria engineered to evade detection. To overcome this problem, Friend or Foe aims to characterize bacteria by identifying pathogenic behavior itself. The envisioned, high-throughput Friend or Foe platform seeks to screen many unfamiliar strains of bacteria at once to reveal their phenotypes, first by extracting and isolating bacteria from complex environmental samples, then by sustaining them in simulated host organism environments, and finally by interrogating the bacteria to determine pathogenicity. In effect, the systems will play the biological equivalent of the game “Twenty Questions,” subjecting bacteria to a battery of physical and chemical tests to determine pathogenicity.
This screening would flag dangerous bacteria for subsequent genetic sequencing to map the newly discovered pathogenic traits to specific genes. Early identification of pathogenic genes could accelerate research into the development of therapeutic countermeasures or provide new assays for more conventional, front-line biosurveillance and diagnostic platforms.
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