Synthetic biology is an area of research described as the design and construction of artificial biological entities that 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 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 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 with the capability to act as living tripwires signaling the passage of submarines, underwater vessels, or even divers. Researchers from The Naval Research Laboratory explain the theory here.
Previous studies show geneticists have already proven that it’s possible to manipulate the DNA of E. coli bacteria to exhibit properties that might be useful for submarine sensing. However, what works in E. coli doesn’t always work in other organisms and practically 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 minimalize 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, detectable to friendly sub drones responsible for immediately reporting the incident to U.S. forces, allowing them to send anti-submarine units to investigate.
The group states 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 that could repair itself over the lifetime of the ship, and tanks or armored vehicles that could wear a coat of organisms that self-heal and change their color on command.
For the future, the researchers approximate they are only a year out from providing concrete evidence they can engineer reactions in abundant marine life forms that could prove useful in sub-hunting.
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