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New high-tech defense against terrorism: fish

Bluegills are so sensitive to water problems that scientists want to mimic their ability with technology – eventually.

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Somewhere in New York State (we can't say where), a computer is monitoring every move of eight bluegill fish in a tank. The moment a few start to cough (yes, fish cough) the computer sends an alert and takes water samples.

Called the Intelligent Aquatic BioMonitoring System (IABS), the contraption is the latest high-tech defense against potential terrorism attacks on the nation's water supply – and it comes in handy, too, for detecting other types of contamination, say a diesel spill from a truck accident.

Scientists are reaching out to nature and back into history to use everything from birds to bees to fish to water fleas with equipment that can alert authorities if something is amiss in the air or water.

Unlike man-made sensors that detect only specific contaminants, these fish and other such nature-made sensors respond to a broad range of problems. While they are unable to indicate that, say, there's ammonia in the water like a machine can, they can show that something is very wrong – and in most cases much faster than anything man-made.

"What we're doing is really redefining biotechnology," says Professor Jerry Bromenshenk, a biologist at University of Montana in Missoula who's pioneering the use of bees as air quality monitors. "[Biotech] came to the foreground in the last decade in terms of bioengineering and genetic manipulation, but we're turning back to the basic functioning of the living systems and are applying them in totally novel and unique ways."

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