The US military is developing synthetic life forms to detect unfriendly craft.
Synthetic biology is an area of research described as the design and construction of artificial biological entities which previously did not exist, or the redesign of existing natural biological systems. In both cases a minimal cell design will be used where existing DNA previously is streamlined and, in some cases, improved upon to enable the survival of the new artificial biologic and functional programming. Now, the United States military state that they plan to develop synthetic life forms to track non-American entities in conflict situations. The Pentagon states the plan is to engineer artificial marine microorganisms which act as living trip wires to signal the passage of submarines, underwater vessels, or even divers. Researchers from The Naval Research Laboratory explain the theory here.
Previous studies show that geneticists have already proven that it’s possible to manipulate the DNA of E. coli bacteria to exhibit properties which might be useful for submarine sensing. However, what works in E. coli doesn’t always work in other organisms and pratically they are not found in the same environments as submarines. Currently, the Army, Navy, and Air Force are jointly supporting an initiative called the Applied Research for the Advancement of Science and Technology Priorities Program on Synthetic Biology for Military Environments. The program is working to use the process of synthetic biology to modify organisms for beneficial applications in areas such as performance augmentation, sensor development and materials synthesis.
The researchers plan to take an abundant sea organism, such as Marinobacter, and minimalise its genetic code to react with certain substances left by enemy vessels, divers, or equipment. These could be metals, fuel exhaust, human DNA, or molecules not found naturally in the ocean and associated with the object of detection. The reaction could take the form of electron loss, which could be detectable to friendly sub drones which could immediately report the incident to U.S. forces, allowing them to send anti-submarine units to investigate.
The group state they already have a vast database of information collected from growing these natural marine organism systems, and when looking at switching gene potential, gene expression, regulatory networks, they are already identifying sub-hunting sensors. The military also envisions a ‘self-healing’ paint used on a ship that consists of microscopic organisms which could repair itself over the lifetime of the ship, and tanks or armored vehicles which could wear a coat of organisms that self-health and change their colour on command.
For the future, the researchers approximate they are only a year out from providing concrete evidence that they can engineer reactions in abundant marine life forms which could prove useful in sub-hunting.