WASHINGTON -- Unseen, a terrorist dumps a mystery chemical into the reservoir that supplies drinking water to a large city. He doesn't notice a suitcase-sized device in the water, which alerts officials and gives them options to counteract the poison.
The device is just a prototype right now, but defense officials and scientists are scrambling to finish its development and invent other high-tech gadgets to protect Americans from biochemical attacks.
They range from flying machines that would monitor the air to new chemical suits that could protect soldiers from lethal agents on the battlefield.
A Pentagon study released several months ago examined nontraditional warfare, including biological and chemical attacks, and concluded the United States was well prepared to respond after the fact and to retaliate, but was lacking in detection and prevention.
Technology has been a major hurdle.
"Our traditional way of detecting biologicals is to catch them and culture them," said Michael Wartell, a chemistry professor and the chairman of the Defense Intelligence Agency's science board. "It's a very slow process, three to four days. By that time, you're dead."
Dr. Guenter Gross of the University of North Texas is developing, with government funding, a device that promises a new approach to detection.
He starts by taking cells from mouse embryos and squishing them between two glass plates in a five-centimeter square, loaded with tiny electrodes.
The network of cells is attached to a life support unit and monitored with a laptop computer. The cells respond to harmful chemicals in the same way cells in living animals do.
In short, the device quickly identifies the nature of an attack by reacting just like a human would when exposed to a chemical or biological agent. It alerts scientists to the danger and helps suggest an antidote.
"It's really a physiological detector," Gross said. "It responds to compounds that interfere with the normal function of the nervous system, because it happens to be a little part of the nervous system."
It's like the birds that miners used to send into mine shafts to detect poisonous gases. If the bird died, miners knew there was danger.
But the new device is better than a bird, Gross said. "A parakeet, as it falls down, can't tell you which parts of the nervous system are affected. This network can," he said.
The network doesn't just check for known chemical and biological agents, but identifies unknown ones too, allowing scientists to work on antidotes.
Gross' invention is in the testing phases, and has been used successfully to detect hundreds of harmful compounds.
The Defense Department is spending $2 million on it, and Gross expects the suitcase-sized unit to be available in six months. A handheld version would come next.
Wartell says it would be the Holy Grail of detectors.
"For the last 20 years, folks have been talking about those types of sensors," Wartell said. "As things get bounced around, as it's exposed to the air, all the challenges you can imagine make it a very difficult thing to do. It would be revolutionary if that could be made to work."
Gross' project is just one of many biological and chemical defense projects getting taxpayer money. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently awarded $6 million dollars for two contracts to create Organic Air Vehicles.
The small flying machines could be used to detect harmful agents and perform traditional battlefield surveillance, relaying images to a soldier's handheld computer.
In DARPA's Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures program, scientists work on new environmental suits, genetically engineered "super immune cells" that would resist chemical attacks, and ways to speed up the development and delivery of vaccines.
Gross' device is already getting a lot of attention. In addition to the military contract, he said, Israeli scientists have toured his laboratory and the State Department has asked for information.
Gross said U.S. embassies, frequently the lone piece of American real estate in an entire nation hostile to the United States, wanted to protect their air and water supplies.
"A chemical or biological attack is difficult over a large area, but not so against an individual building," he said.
On the Net:
University of North Texas Center for Network Neuroscience: http://www.cnns.org
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: http://www.darpa.mil