Spurred by concerns over climate change and worsening environmental conditions, there is new a drive to reconcile the advances made in these distinct disciplines to better understand how genetic factors and environmental exposures interact to harm or cause disease in otherwise healthy individuals. One potential solution: sensor technologies that could provide accurate quantitative measures of chemical and biological hazards or that could characterize the "biological fingerprint" left by a particular class of environmental stressors. In Science (sub. required), David Schwartz and Francis Collins, both of the NIH, make the case that geneticists and environmental scientists should pool their efforts to build better environmental biosensors.
New sensing technologies derived from advances made in biodefense, medical diagnostics, and nanotechnology and nanoengineering could be adapted for use in exposure science. For instance, molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs), which are artificial receptors, could assume the roles of antibodies and other recognition mediators in the body. If designed correctly, they would have three main advantages: ease-of-use, portability and lack of constant monitoring through laboratory work. For more insight into the article and the authors' plan, check out this story from MIT Technology Review's David Ewing Duncan.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently embraced this approach by launching the Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative (GEI), which seeks to develop new non-invasive instruments and biomarkers to assess interactions between environmental exposures and genetic variations that lead to human disease. With progress in the field still in its infancy, the NIH has started several new programs, with a focus on environmental genomics, to train a generation of scientists that will be comfortable straddling both disciplines.
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