U.S. Army scientists are researching and modeling potential technology solutions using what’s known as synthetic biology to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.
At the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, scientists are making progress in the lab’s Transformational Synthetic Biology for Military Environments Essential Research Program. ERPs are top priority programs for the Army’s corporate laboratory.
“I think most of the folks on the uniform side don’t really understand just yet what the implications are from a warfighting perspective,” said ARL Director Dr. Philip Perconti.
In synthetic biology, researchers take bacterial cells or fungal cells and transform them to do whatever the mission may require.
“I’m on the modeling and simulation side, so I’m trying to understand synthetic biology with the ultimate goal of controlling how these materials interact with non-biological material,” said Dr. Meagan Small, a research chemist in the lab’s Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate. “How biological molecules interact with material — that’s really an emerging area. There’s a lot to learn. I really want to be a part of understanding how we control biology — if it can be controlled — and control it on the timescales we want.”
Synthetic biology has already proven its worth in the beginnings of self-healing types of systems, like bio-concrete where water activates a sleeping bacteria and then the bacteria secretes the components needed to heal cracks. This “microbial self-healing approach” has the potential for “long-lasting, rapid and active crack repair, while also being environmentally friendly,” according to a scholarly paper published in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology (see Related Links below).
“We have a real opportunity with synthetic biology,” Small said. “I think the biggest thing is that custom materials, basically materials on demand, where you have all of these components that could self-assemble if you trigger them it a certain way and it will assemble into whatever that you want.”
Small predicts self-healing properties where you have the components out in the field and they’re assembling into whatever product you may want by 2040 and beyond. The science also holds promise in the breakdown of materials, she said.
“That’s important for not leaving a trace,” Small said. “I think from a protective materials point of view, that’s very interesting because biologically based materials can be extremely protective, but they’re not thought of that way.”
Biological polymers can be protective for the Soldier to wear, she said, and also for vehicles applications.
“What’s cool about that is it’s not only protective because of the way molecules interact with each other, but that you can customize those molecules to have a heat signature or chemical signature, or even to mask those signatures,” she said. “They’re very versatile.”
There is a debate about living materials and its definition, she said.
“Oftentimes I think some people think that these things are actually alive,” she said. “Even I go back and forth on what is truly alive. If a cell is in a spore form — kind of sleeping — and it’s activated, some people I’ve talked to argue that’s not living. In my mind, living materials is taking biological material, and that doesn’t have to be a whole cell it could just be the components of it — proteins or DNA — or whatever, and embedding those on to non-biological material.”
Cells need to be fed. But if Soldiers would only need them for a short time, Small said they do their job and die.
“The great thing about biology is that it just disintegrates,” she said. “You don’t worry about something out there left that you have to go retrieve.”
Small and her fellow researchers consider how Soldiers are loaded down with a lot of equipment, armor and kit.
“I think of biology and the Soldier of the future where he or she is not loaded down with all that stuff,” she said. “They could wear armor that is light. You know biological cells are not as heavy as other things, and armor has multiple functions. It can heal itself, so they don’t have to worry about carrying extra components.”
Small said future Soldiers will be less encumbered by all of this gear.
“Synthetic biology has the potential for that,” she said. “We talk about synthetic biology really coming to fruition in 30 or 40 years, but there are some nearer term applications that people are working on today. We can take existing materials and use synthetic biology to repair those materials — the self-assembly and self-healing of the materials the shorter term. We can take biological material and use it to fix cracks in whatever material.”
Researchers at the lab are even looking at the potential for self-healing cracks in the rotor blades of helicopters.
“We can’t underestimate the notion of using synthetic biology to do self-healing with self-assembly materials on demand,” Small said. “There’s a whole gamut of applications that this new science will open up.”
For example, when Small talks with kids about STEM, she mentions the potential of self-healing cracks in smartphones.
“You know all kids have cell phones and you know they drop and crack their screens — I just cracked mine at the airport — I envision where you just set it on the heating pad and the screen will just repair itself,” she said. “That’s what we’re driving toward. That’s definitely doable even before 2040. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what applications can make use of this, not only commercially, but more importantly for the United States.”