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Bacteria research could protect Airmen from radiation

  • Published
  • By Maria Callier
  • Air Force Office of Scientific Research Public Affairs
An Air Force Office of Scientific Research-funded scientist has identified manganese complexes in the bacterium Deinococcus radioduran that resists the damaging effects of radiation.

The goal of the research is to investigate biomaterials that offer protection to Airmen from various environmental hazards, such as military personnel who are exposed to radiation in the course of their duties.

According to Maj. Jennifer Gresham, AFOSR program manager, most biomaterials break down and are not suited for extreme environments.

"Only a few organisms have figured out how to survive and even thrive in harsh environments, and we like to understand these mechanisms to provide long-term stability in a variety of conditions," the major said.

According to Dr. Michael Daly, a professor of pathology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., "Death by DNA damage is the conventionally held view of why cells die after exposure to extreme dryness or radiation. This work supports the idea that the mutual nature of extreme dryness and radiation resistance resides in the ability of cells to prevent protein damage."

Doctor Daly is pursuing practical applications of Deinococcus manganese complexes in radiation sickness protection, fuel cells and sensor systems.

Major Gresham noted that in order to take advantage of the unique properties of biological organisms in Air Force systems, Doctor Daly and other scientists must find ways to make such material more robust.

"One can imagine fuel cells whose enzymatic properties can be turned on and off for storage, and biomaterials that can operate in the harsh environment of space," the major said.

She added that extremeophiles offer exciting insights into the fundamental concepts of macromolecule stability and cell survivability. An extremeophile is an organism adapted to living in physically or geochemically extreme conditions. Most known extremophiles are microbes.

"The emphasis in extremeophile research is to discover the mechanisms for survival with emphasis on Air Force relevant environments, to include hot, cold, extreme dryness, radiation, solvents, and methods for exporting these protective strategies outside of the host," Major Gresham said.

"What is so exciting about this research is that Doctor Daly has overturned the conventional wisdom on radiation resistance," she continued.

Having demonstrated the potent ability of the bacterium's complexes to protect proteins during harsh exposure to stress caused by oxidation, Doctor Daly's next objective is to test their effectiveness in simple living cells and in fuel cells.

By funding research programs like Doctor Daly's, AFOSR continues to support the warfighting effort and expand the horizon of scientific knowledge. AFOSR is part of Air Force Materiel Command's Air Force Research Laboratory.