Letha Sooter, an assistant professor of biology at West Virginia ””:http://www.wvu.edu University s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and a researcher at WVNano , has been awarded the Universitys first cooperative agreement with the Department of Defense.

She will receive more than $409,000 from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to work with molecular recognition elements (or MREs), in hopes of creating devices that will detect explosive, chemical and biological warfare.

MREs are bio-molecules that bind with specific targets.And the targets can be absolutely anything,Sooter said.

She once worked with MREs that glowed and bound to cracks in airplanes. Other researchers are looking for MREs that bind with cancer cells.

Shes searching for the bio-molecules that will detect chemical and biological danger for soldiers and civilians.

Molecular recognition elements are such a powerful tool,Sooter said.Theyre amazing little things. They do a wonderful job of being specific and having a high affinity for their target.

But finding them, she says, is a little like winning the lottery. Sooter has an extensive library of moleculesor lottery ticketsthat she tests over time. But theres only one winner, and she has to keep searching until she locates it.

The cooperative agreement will give Sooter and her team of student researchers three years worth of funding to accomplish that goal. If they locate the correct bio-molecules, the Army will apply them to the sensing devices they are currently creating and soldiers will be able to use the technology in theater.

The end goal is always the most exciting part for me,Sooter said.If we can find this and create something that will really help the nation outthat would be great.

But getting there is an arduous process. Not only does the science have to be right, but the device has to work under a strict set of circumstances. While the Army is concerned about the devices portability and ease of use, Sooter has to worry about the bio-molecule functioning in any environmentocean, desert and even subway station.

Because Sooter has been working with MREs for nearly a decade and conducted research at the Army Research Lab before coming to WVU in July 2008, she is optimistic that there will be more collaboration between the government and the University.

Hopefully, this cooperative agreement is the first of many,she said.