New fermenters give boost to biological agent defense at Dugway
June 4, 2012
By Al Vogel
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah - The Life Sciences Division at the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Center's West Desert Test Center recently added three large-capacity fermenters to markedly increase its ability to grow benign microorganisms that simulate biological agents. These simulants are used to test defense systems at Dugway Proving Ground, such as detectors and decontaminators, for protection against actual biological agents.
The fermenters are 1,500 liters (396 gallons), 200 liters, (53 gallons), and 100 liters (26 gallons) and will be used exclusively to produce strains of bacteria.
Though listed at a specific capacity, the fermenters do not produce the same volume because room is needed for the microorganism populations to grow. For example, the 200 liter fermenter has a working volume of 150 liters, while the 1,500 liter fermenter has a working capacity of 1,000 liters.
The three fermenters are housed in a building refurbished specifically to accommodate them. Building refurbishment included a new water system to provide purified water for growing Erwinia herbicola that simulates the Plague pathogen Yersinia pestis, and Bacillus globigii (BG), that simulates the Anthrax spore Bacillus anthracis.
Since the early 1990s, concern over a biological attack by terrorists or rogue nations has dramatically increased worldwide, prompting more tests of new or modified detectors, filtration systems, decontaminators and decontaminants. More testing means more simulant materials are needed.
"In the past, when someone said they wanted 1,000 liters of Erwinia (herbicola), I had to run the 150-liter fermenter about eight times over the course of four or five weeks," said Arthur Schwedler, microbiologist. "Now, we can produce 1,000 liters in one run, in about a week."
The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, signed by most countries, bans the development and stockpiling of biological weapons. While it does allow limited production of bio-agents for testing defenses, it forbids their use outdoors, restricting them to labs with extremely high containment requirements.
As an added precaution, the live bio-agents are killed by steam (autoclaving) or irradiation, before testing in labs that have redundant safety and air filtration systems.
Simulants are benign, however, and may be used outdoors in varying wind, temperature, humidity, smoke and dust conditions -- replicating a real attack or incident. Some of the simulant is used to train various first-responders -- police, fire, FBI, military, emergency medical -- how to deal with a suspected biological attack and to safely practice lab procedures.
Growing the simulants begins with a flask of about 2.8 liters of starter microorganisms in their nutritional medium. From there, they're grown to about 10 liters and transferred to the larger fermenters of 150, 200 or 1,000 liters.
When the desired amount is reached, the simulant microorganisms are put through a continuous flow centrifuge, separating them from the growing medium. The result is a paste of millions of microorganisms, resembling modeling clay. The paste is air-dried, so it can be milled into a powder just as a bio-weapon would be.
To simulate a bio-weapon, various components may be added to help the simulant disperse in the air or along a surface -- or not.
"In the real world, though, I think the bad guys would take it out of the fermenter and use it without all this processing," Schwedler said.
Customers who have bio-defense items tested at DPG include civilian and military agencies, manufacturers and occasionally a foreign ally.
Schwedler obviously enjoys growing microorganisms. A few years ago, he helped make beer at the Trax microbrewery in nearby Tooele. He did it free to learn the equipment, and was paid with meals. Today, Schwedler makes beer at home as a hobby.
A DPG employee for 27 years, Schwedler recalls the urgency wrought by Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Bio-defense testing ramped over fears Saddam Hussein would attack with biological agents.
Today, the urgency isn't as intense but the concern is very real. In 2001, envelopes of anthrax were mailed to some legislators and the media. American post offices now screen mail for biological agents.
The Department of Homeland Security has installed bio-weapon detectors in more than 30 U.S. cities, sampling the air to warn of an attack -- and wants to upgrade and expand the system.
Life Science Division's capability to create more simulants, faster than before, will help speed the testing of bio-defenses that might save millions of lives around the world. In the future, if an attack or outbreak is averted, success may be traced back to a microbiologist-cum-brewmeister and new, spacious accommodations for benign microorganisms.
The West Desert Test Center, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC), is the Department of Defense's lead tester for U.S. and allied chemical and biological defense equipment and chemical, biological and radiation contamination survivability of defense materiel. ATEC plans, integrates, and conducts independent developmental and operational testing and evaluations to provide essential information to acquisition decision makers to ensure Warfighters are equipped with the best systems possible.