U.S. military wants to use bioengineered sea bacteria to spot enemy subs, drones

From self-guiding bullets to brain-computer interfaces and robot insect spies, there are plenty of military technologies that sound like something straight out of a science fiction movie. Now the U.S. military is apparently looking to add one more technology to the mix: Water-based microorganisms that can be used to detect enemy submarines, underwater drones, or divers. Think of it like a living proximity sensor and you won’t be too far off course.

The work, which is supported by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, aims to use genetic modification to alter the makeup of sea bacteria so that it reacts to particular substances. These could include certain metals, human DNA, fuel exhausts, and more. These reactions could trigger the bacteria to give up electrons, a change that could be monitored and picked up by U.S.-owned aquatic drones. The project is still a research initiative, rather than something ready to be rolled out, but it could reportedly be only a year away from a proof of concept demonstration.

“We want to move synthetic biology from the laboratory to the field,” Dimitra Stratis-Cullum, who heads up the United States Army Research Laboratory’s biomaterials team, told Defense One. “That’s a big thrust of ours, and so there’s a lot of tool development in order to do that.”

Exactly what form this marine bacteria would take for the finished product isn’t yet clear. Stratis-Cullum suggests that it could be made to function as a sensor “embedded in a uniform” that’sable to trigger a color change if the presence of a certain material is detected. At present, the team is reportedly working on ways to “ruggedize” the organisms to make them more versatile.

The project is just one part of a broader $45 million initiative taking place across the Army, Navy, and Air Force divisions of the U.S. military. The “Applied Research for the Advancement of Science and Technology Priorities Program on Synthetic Biology for Military Environments” (coming up with a catchy name clearly wasn’t part of the investment) aims to create some next-generation genetic tools that the military can take advantage of in the near future.

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