The Office of Naval Research (ONR) today launched a collaborative initiative with university researchers focused on synthetic, or engineered, cells—part of a larger effort to use the smallest units of life to help Sailors and Marines execute their missions.

ONR currently has multiple ongoing projects in the field of synthetic biology, which offers new tools and methods for creating new organisms with specific functions, such as threat monitoring.

Even the simplest cells can have complex functions, such as being able to move in a particular direction or glow in the dark. The idea is to make these capabilities useful to humans by directing their natural functions and adding non-natural functions to a cell’s repertoire.

In one instance, ONR is examining synthetic cell circuits—genetic programs designed by scientists either to make a cell perform a certain task or change the way a cell would normally do the task. For example, plants have been engineered to turn white when they detect trinitrotoluene (TNT) as a visual cue to their handlers.

“We’re developing better ways to program cells to detect things we’re interested in—like explosives—and then communicate that they’ve found that chemical to a device like a robot,” said Dr. Linda Chrisey, ONR program officer for naval biosciences and bio-centric technology. “For example, you could grow these special cells on a silicon chip that’s part of a robot. When the cells detect something and respond, they would communicate this information to the ‘mother ship’—the autonomous robot system.”

One of ONR’s biggest successes to date was a TNT-detecting plant. This “plant sentinel” transitioned to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Department of Homeland Security in 2010. A small company was founded to modify this plant for other applications, such as chemical warfare detection and crop security.

“The grand plan is to try and take advantage of the natural capabilities of microbes to collect chemical and physical signal information of different types and process this information,” Chrisey said. “We already make a lot of medicines and industrial products using cells and engineered cells. Synthetic biology is going to smarten that process up, make it less susceptible to failure and save money by allowing us greater control of the engineered cells.”

Another initiative is looking at microbes that use carbon dioxide and electrical current for their metabolism and programming them to make liquid fuels. “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,” Chrisey said.

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

The Multidisciplinary University Initiative (MURI) launched today, “Next-generation genetic devices: Model-guided Discovery and Optimization of Cell-Based Sensors,” is aimed at applying tools from synthetic biology to construct high-performance and robust genetic sensors that respond to non-natural signals, such as non-visible wavelengths of light (ultraviolet and infrared) and magnetic fields. This program is expected to contribute to the development of “smart” hybrid biological-robotic systems that will detect threats in the environment. The universities involved are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Penn State, Rice University, Rutgers University, California Institute of Technology and University of Minnesota.

MURI efforts involve teams of researchers investigating high-priority topics and opportunities that involve more than one technical area. This multidisciplinary approach often stimulates innovations, accelerates research progress and expedites transition of results into naval applications.

Source: Office of Naval Research