Engineered cells pose possibility for detecting threats

The Office of Naval Research launched a new initiative with university researchers on Thursday for the development of engineered cells to help military personnel detect potential threats during missions.

ONR has multiple projects that are ongoing in the field of synthetic biology. These projects focus on changing existing organisms to have specific functions that can help military personnel use their surroundings to give them clues about potential threats.

New technology and research has been able to give cells complex functions, such as the ability to glow in the dark and detect specific chemicals. The idea behind the research is to make natural processes useful to humans.

An example of this function is a TNT-detecting plant. It is currently in-use by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Department of Homeland Security.

"Eventually, in a remote location, with just a vial of these organisms and materials that most people consider to be waste products, Sailors or Marines could potentially make organic compounds-such as fuel, medicine or polymers-on demand, even under austere conditions," Dr. Linda Chrisey, ONR program officer for naval biosciences and bio-centric technology, said.

In the long term, synthetic circuits offer possibilities for enabling new methods for manufacturing. The new processes can be used to make certain products, including biofuels, pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals, and as medical devices and therapies for infection control, regenerating tissues and disease treatment. The processes can also be used to create environmental sensors, pollution treatments and micro-robotic systems.

The next initiatives to come are designed around creating hybrid biological-robotic genetic sensors able to help military personnel protect themselves.