A 2011 digitally-colorized electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a clump of green-colored, spheroid-shaped, Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria on a purple-colored matrix.

A 2011 digitally-colorized electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a clump of green-colored, spheroid-shaped, Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria on a purple-colored matrix. NIAID via AP

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U.S. Army Making Synthetic Biology a Priority

New thermal cloaking, insect proof uniforms are on the horizon, if the U.S. can get out in front of China.

The U.S. Army’s new Futures Command is accelerating research into synthetic biotechnology to help the military develop next-generation living camouflage and other never-before-seen organisms and materials.

Dimitra Stratis-Cullum, who is overseeing the research in synthetic biology for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, detailed the effort on Thursday at the fourth annual Defense One Tech Summit. 

U.S Army labs have long had a mandate to study biology, but in April, the lab quietly elevated the study of synthetic biology to one of its top ten priorities. 

“Synthetic biology is one of the Lab's top ten research priorities. That means we are working across the laboratory and with other regional partners to double the effort that was previously being executed under the Living Materials program,” said Army spokesperson T'Jae Gibson Ellis. The Army did not provide specific numbers on the size of the Living Materials program. The research is being overseen by Gen. Mike Murray, the head of the U.S. Army’s newly established Futures Command.

Soldier survivability will be one of the key areas of research, Stratis-Cullum said. That’s very different from creating genetically-enhanced super soldiers. Instead, the focus is developing new pieces of technology that will help U.S. troops make it out of battle unscathed..

For instance, the effort will place a big focus on developing new biological materials that could be used for cloaking to prevent detection, said Stratis-Cullum.

“We’re talking about trying to make the soldier look like nature, look like natural environments,” she said. “Now we can actually take from nature, so if we could do that in a scalable, stable, limited way, we could bring new concepts to concealment.”

One of those concepts, she said, is material that could mask an individual’s thermal signature, essentially making them invisible to lenses for cameras that detect heat.

“That is one of the areas we are looking at,” Stratis-Cullum said. “We want our soldiers to be able to move and not be detected on the battlefield. We don’t want their infrared signature to be detected. There’s a whole host of signatures that we worry about that could allow them to be targeted.”

Another potential application would be uniforms that repel insects.

“We’re moving [away] from a scenario where we are soaking uniforms in DEET, which is toxic to the soldier, toxic also potentially to the natural ecosystem,” she said. 

But there remains a lot of difficult scientific research to do before the Army will start pumping out new living camouflage products. Researchers need to be able to show that the biological organisms that are coming out of the lab can survive in the wild, and potentially in warfare. Researchers also have to be able to show that they can produce those new materials at scale, by pioneering new techniques for creating organisms.

“One of our big pushes is being able to do synthetic biology in a very agile way and very quickly,” Stratis-Cullum said. You really have to harness the precision control and assembly over scale. That’s a big part of the push.” 

The final area of focus will be forecasting the future of synthetic biotechnology in the hands of potential adversaries. It’s an area of rising concern. A Russian scientist recently declared his intention to use a gene-editing tool called CRISPR to create a genetically-modified infant, following in the footsteps of a Chinese scientist who did so as well. 

The U.S. military will not be trying to edit the human genome, but, said Stratis-Cullum, advancing research into synthetic biotechnology generally is essential to help the U.S. military prepare and predict what other countries might try and do.

“It’s one of the things we look at,” she said. “We try to also look at what is the common barrier, level of control, to what extent that could be implemented in situ [meaning in nature, as opposed to in a lab] in military environments… [we are] trying to really understand that and then use that to forecast.”

The rapid pace of information technology advancement in the form of more computing power, better machine learning and image and data analysis software, even 3D printing, are all key contributors to the fast pace of synthetic biotechnology development. That has the United States at an advantage, but it’s not an advantage that will last forever, said Stratis-Cullum.

“The convergence of those things is helping us rapidly accelerate, right? Rapidly innovate. If you look at our adversaries, that’s actually a pattern you are seeing in terms of investment. It’s not just an investment in synthetic biology but those other areas alongside,” she said. 

Not only are countries like China and Russia investing in those technologies, they are also investing in the United States. A report from Reuters last September calculates that Chinese investment currently makes up about 43 percent of the funds going into U.S. biotech startups, more than $5 billion a year.  

“We’re living in an age of international power competition in synthetic biotechnology,” Justin Sanchez, the former head of DARPA’s Biotechnology office  Life Sciences Research Technical Fellow, Battelle said on Thursday. If we’re going to lead as a country we have to get the people together that can lead in this end-to-end development.”