In a request released Sept. 14 of this year, the Office Of Naval Research sought to find proposals for “Synthetic Biology Tools for Sensing and Bioprocessing” — essentially hybrid, organic inorganic “sensing” robots.
But the language can be deceiving.Googling the first three words — synthetic biology tools — yields research in the field of Biofuels. Even the “bioprocessing” part of the request equates to sources of “efficient” fuels in austere conditions. As we’ve covered most recently, the military is under tremendous pressure to curb its consumption of traditional fossil fuels.
Along with that, it’s under even more pressure to reduce casualties on the battlefield — arguably the number one metric aside from monetary cost which affects public resistance to foreign military expeditions.
Sure, they’re looking for inexpensive, efficient means to fuel war, but they’re also looking for more efficient vehicles of war. The language farther in the proposal though makes it clear that the military is investing heavily into smart, cybernetic robots.
From the proposal:
This field is intended to serve two purposes: (1) to allow the design and engineering of organisms that possess a specific, reproducible function from a set of validated genetic parts, circuits and chassis organisms, and, (2) to allow the systematic study of the structure and function of genetic components in natural cellular/multi-cellular systems.
Interpretation: We’re looking to connect organic matter, be it single celled or multi-celled, to inorganic, possibly synthetic, circuits.
The organic matter would ‘sense’ certain stimuli. In one case specifically, chemicals or molecules in the air that would indicate bomb-making materials — kind of like a dog’s nose connected to a computer.
But then the proposal takes a nasty turn for the weird and scary:
The Office of Naval Research has been funding basic and applied research in Synthetic Biology for the past several years, with several applications or new naval capabilities as the anticipated endpoint of this research program:
• Secure, renewable, scalable production of energy, fuels or high-value naval materials – potentially in remote, resource-limited locations • Stealthy, remotely-observable sentinel species for threat monitoring and response to these threats (e.g., explosives) • Autonomous, living-non-living hybrid robotic systems that utilize cells as environmental sensing and information processing components • Utilizing synthetic biology to effect inorganic materials fabrication across multiple length scales.
Interpretation: The above means a wide range of different possibilities. Single celled ‘chassis’ could just be goop spread on a circuit that changes states when exposed to certain ‘stimuli,’ and a circuit which would detect this state change.
The objectives pretty much lay out the future for cybernetic organisms.
Objectives: • Develop rapid, generalizable methods for designing/testing integrated sensing and actuation components in a cellular/multi-cellular context. Approaches should consider the use of both chemical and non-chemical signals for detection and response.
Possible lab exercises and hypotheses to test hybrid organic non-organic systems
• Design and test feasibility of using environmentally robust, genetically tractable, ‘chassis’ organisms, including novel microbes and multi-cellular eukaryotes. • Develop microbial/multi-cellular catalysts that can utilize electrical current directly as an electron donor, and elucidate mechanisms of electron transport into these catalysts and their metabolic pathways
From single-celled goop, to straight up eyeballs (multicelled), that notice change in light, change in smell, pressure or chemical reactions
• Enabling high information content communication between cells, or between cells and non-living components, possibly utilizing non-natural transduction modes and electronic coupling. Detection and/or production of chemical or non-chemical signals such as electrical current or fields, magnetic fields, mechanical forces, or specific wavelengths of light should be considered.
Getting the goop or eyeballs to communicate with nonliving tissue.
Finally, to bring it all full circle, we get the last objective:
• Identify high-throughput methods for discovery of unusual microbial metabolism/ pathways, and screening for new genetic systems and/or engineered systems that can lead to efficient production of fuels or other organic/inorganic compounds in remote locations.
Basically a lot of words just to say: turning sea water into jet fuel.