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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Environmental Renaissance: PNNL researchers master the art of predictive sciences that use environmental stories of the past to paint a balanced future

Biomarkers: Transforming human health and the environment

You've seen it in the news headlines: Anthrax discovered in the mail...SARs outbreak...Norovirus outbreak...Potential for an avian flu pandemic looms...Obesity and diabetes threaten Americans' health...Demand for water on the rise, while water quality falls. What do they have in common? All of them clearly illustrate the link between how environmental stressors affect human and ecological health.

As concerned citizens, we've utilized preventive measures where we can, including using hand sanitizers, taking vitamins and eating well, getting immunizations, using disinfecting wipes and in-home water filtration systems. However, for every ounce of prevention we take, we still are vulnerable to the broad spectrum of biological and chemical agents in the environment that threaten our health. And we don't usually realize it until we start to feel sick.

We cannot escape the fact that human health is always impacted by our environment and how our bodies react to it—from the air we breathe, the food we eat and the environment we live in. Wouldn't it be great to know these stressors were affecting our health before the symptoms set in?

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists are transforming how we assess and manage our health and environment by applying system science and pattern recognition to the discovery of biomolecular signatures. Biomolecular signatures, a set of genes, proteins, metabolites, and/or lipids, present a unique pattern of change in an organism that can be used to identify an exposure or response to a specific environmental stressor.

The ability to identify these biosignatures will lead to the transformation of environmental and threat assessment from a measurement science to a predictive science. To get started, they are focusing on three stressors: biological agents associated with terrorist threats, potential toxicity of nanoparticles used more and more in everyday products, and protection of our river environment from contaminants.

"We are identifying environmental biomarkers—which are the earliest indicators of biological changes based on the response to—not just to the exposure to—environmental stressors," said Dr. Terri Stewart, who leads PNNL's Environmental Biomarkers Initiative. "As with any preventive measure, the earlier, the better which is a driver for the team to find these biomarkers."

By identifying and understanding these early indicators of illness and other environmental damage, scientists will be better able to intervene before human health or the environment are negatively affected. This vital intervention may lead to new preventive measures to ensure cleaner water, an overall cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

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