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News about weapons of mass destruction tends to focus on sinister materials and ominous devices. In the long view, however, the real challenge may be to steer the expertise of the people who know how to make this stuff toward more productive pursuits.
It was on such an errand, in the summer of 2001, that microbiologist Tamas Torok of Berkeley Lab's Life Sciences Division and Glen Dahlbacka of the Lab's Technology Transfer Department found themselves in one of the wildest places on Earth. Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula is an intensely active volcanic region almost as big as California but with only seven percent of the population of the Bay Area -- most of it concentrated near the Peninsula's only town, the seaport of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
To a veteran bioprospector like Torok, this vast realm of hot springs and fumaroles and acid lakes is a trove of undiscovered microbes. In recent years much of Torok's work abroad has been done under the auspices of the Department of Energy's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, or IPP, a program that fosters collaboration between DOE national laboratories, former Soviet weapons scientists, and private companies in the U.S. Dahlbacka manages IPP programs at Berkeley Lab and chairs IPP's Inter-Laboratory Advisory Board.
Established in 1994, IPP aims to create long-term jobs for former Soviet weapons scientists in the high-technology commercial marketplace. DOE sponsors "Thrust 1" explorations of potentially valuable technologies; the costs of more extensive "Thrust 2" projects are shared among DOE, private U.S. firms, and institutions in the so-called Newly Independent States, former members of the Soviet Union.
"This is not a social welfare program," says Torok. The goal is to create self-sustaining commercial ventures, with royalties and profits divided among the former Soviet institutions and their U.S. business partners. When it comes to biology, that means engaging former "bioweaponeers" in enterprises that will not only keep them busy but give them a stake in the economic success of their discoveries and inventions.
A matter of intent
"The difference between a lab for producing lifesaving vaccines and one capable of making deadly toxins is largely one of intent," a recent editorial in the New York Times noted. Case in point: Vector, near Novosibirsk, once an infamous bioweapons facility, today a biotechnology research center with no apparent ties to the Russian defense establishment.
Torok has worked closely with Vladimir Repin, director of the Collection of Microbial Cultures, one of Vector's six institutes, in an ongoing Thrust 2 project with the agribusiness arm of the DuPont company. Trips with Repin to Lake Baikal yielded thousands of samples from the waters, coastal hot springs, and bottom sediments of the world's deepest lake.
"DuPont is looking for natural products that may be useful as herbicides, fungicides, or insecticides with high specificity -- toxins that only poison what they're supposed to," Torok explains. "The Lab's role is to provide knowledge of how to 'tweak' organisms of interest, to make them overproduce these useful secondary metabolites."
From over 3,000 distinct microbial strains and some 11,000 samples produced at Berkeley Lab -- from the Lake Baikal project and other bioprospecting expeditions, in states of the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. as well -- Torok and his DuPont colleagues have so far selected over 60 organisms of interest.
While some of their products may be known from previous discoveries, or may prove impossible to characterize or impractical to produce, several patent disclosures are being formulated. And, says Torok, "Patents are how IPP measures success."
Extremophiles and grizzly bears
Torok's experiences with Vector and other IPP projects -- including collecting samples from near the Chernobyl reactors in Ukraine -- led to invitations to speak at numerous international workshops. The "Kamchatka 2000" workshop, held in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in August of that year, addressed the potential benefits of responsible bioprospecting for extremophiles.
As their name suggests, extremophiles live on the edge: at home in boiling water or frozen under the ice; in strongly acidic or alkaline solutions of metals, sulfur, salts, and other chemicals; under intense pressure; in pitch darkness; without oxygen; exposed to various kinds of radiation -- surroundings that could kill most anything else on the planet. The enzymes and other natural products that equip extremophiles to survive are what make them potentially valuable.
On a field trip during the conference, Torok first laid eyes on the Uzon Caldera and the Valley of Geysers in Kamchatka's Kronotsky State Biosphere Preserve, a two-hour helicopter ride from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky; strangely, the huge park is one of Russia's oldest protected wilderness areas, having been established in the 1880s as a preserve for trapping sables. A few hours spent gathering samples was enough to convince Torok he had to return.
Soon after his return to the U.S., Torok was writing to his academic and industrial acquaintances about Kamchatka's potential microbial riches. "What we have found is exciting," he wrote, "but investment is crucial."
Meanwhile he arranged another visit in 2001 as part of the DuPont-Vector project, a visit which luckily overlapped Glen Dahlbacka's get-acquainted tour of numerous IPP projects. Dahlbacka was in the field to assess logistical challenges, to arrange legal matters like clear title to samples, and especially to get to know the people on whom the day-to-day success of each project depends.
"In Kamchatka, that means the people in the Institute of Volcanology," says Dahlbacka. "It's through them that we arrange everything, park permits, helicopters -- and armed rangers to protect us from the bears." It's an essential component of any trip to Kamchatka: during Dahlbacka's 2001 visit, he says drolly, an armed ranger named Robert from the indigenous Even tribe "was my best friend."
A scarcity of humans means an abundance of salmon in Kamchatka's undammed rivers, and the local grizzlies thrive. From the mother and cubs Torok and Dahlbacka saw sprinting through the brush when they arrived in the Uzon Calder by helicopter, to the bear Dahlbacka came face to face with a few days later, grizzlies were constant visitors.
Streams warmed by hot springs and geysers are the bear bait. "They come to the hot spots to warm up," says Torok. "The dangerous times are in the evenings, when they're hungry. They look through the cabin windows." And, says Dahlbacka, "Those bears are really big" -- reputedly the largest brown bears in the world.
Scarier than bears was the day they were scheduled to leave the caldera. The designated time arrived, but no helicopter. As the hours lengthened the visitors contemplated the 150 miles of roadless wilderness between them and Petropavlovsk. "It was a sinking feeling," says Dahlbacka. When the helicopter finally appeared, they learned it had been hampered by high winds.
Compared to the fate of Siberian explorers before them these incoveniences were minor; nothing could dampen Torok and Dahlbacka's eagerness to return.