In January 2015, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Technical Intelligence (OTI) released a Technical Assessment on the use of synthetic biology for defense applications. In the following post we provide a brief overview of this influential report.
The OTI identifies, assesses, recommends R&D strategy, and invests seed funding in newly emerging technology. Synthetic biology, as defined by the European Commission “is the application of science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms”. Products from the synthetic biology industry help contribute $350 billion dollars per year to the U.S. economy in industries including: food, clothing, medicine and cosmetics. Because the synthetic biology products can be used in a variety of industries, including healthcare, agricultural, and industrial, government agencies, including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the DoD, including DARPA, invest over $220 million annually into synthetic biology research and development. The DoD has identified and assessed specific potential uses for synthetic biology technology including, generating commodity and specialty materials, increasing health and performance of soldiers on the battlefield, using biological systems as sensors, and defense against biological and chemical warfare.
Commodity materials that the DoD can create using synthetic biology include cheaper textiles and fuels. In the commodity sector, the DoD is investing most in the production of fuels in warzones, such as in Afghanistan, where a gallon of fuel can cost as much as $400.
Some biological systems are able to naturally produce materials that are difficult, expensive, or impossible to produce by traditional means. Potential defense applications include: sensor active materials, high strength polymers for armor, stealth materials, corrosion resistant coatings, biological computing; data storage and cryptographic materials. With the exception of DARPA’s Living Foundries project, that is creating organisms that can generate 1000 molecules, there is very little private and government funding in specialty materials. The DoD is planning on focusing most of their efforts and funding on R&D. One such effort, released in late 2014, is the Synthetic Biology for Materials prize from a partnership between the OTI and the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory that rewards the best metamaterial (materials that are engineered to have properties that have not been found in nature) R&D plans.
The DoD is looking to utilize natural biologically occurring sensing for their benefit. For example, certain biological systems can naturally or synthetically detect electromagnetic waves, light and ionizing radiation. These organisms can produce physical or chemical signals, which scientists can harvest to create living sensors and detect changes in an environment. Because of their small size, high sensitivity, ability for self-replication, multiple stimulus sensing ability and the difficulty of distinguishing synthetic vs. organic organisms in the environment, synthetic organisms can become very accurate and discrete sensors for military applications. Potential applications include: distributed tag, track and trace systems and persistent clandestine sensors. There will be some regulations that the DoD will need to overcome to implement these sensors in the field as introducing genetically modified organisms into the natural environment can potentially have unintended consequences, such as gene transfer with organisms in the natural environment. Most of DoD funding is going to R&D and to lobbying for policy to be able to implement the sensors into the field.
Medical and Human Performance Modification
Outside of trauma, most of the DoD’s focus is on human performance modification. Potential applications of synthetic biology in this industry include: prophylactic application of bacteria on the skin to prevent infection and to help heal wounds and probiotics that decrease the effects of stress and enhance mental performance. It will, however, be difficult to get these products approved by the FDA and the DoD is focusing much of its resources elsewhere.
Defense Against Biological and Chemical Warfare
The United States will not use chemical and biological warfare. That does not mean that adversaries will not use synthetic biology to create novel virulent strains of bacteria, viruses or chemical weapons. The DoD (mainly DARPA) and healthcare organizations are creating treatments for potential biological and chemical threats to protect both citizens and warfighters.
At this time, there are very few highly experienced program managers, scientists, and experts in the Synthetic Biology Department at the DoD. It takes approximately twenty years to train a junior-level scientist to a senior rank. The DoD is looking to train junior level post-doctoral students to work within the field of synthetic biology so that the field remains fruitful.