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711 HPW’s synthetic biology – a hot topic at DoD Lab Day

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Synthetic biology was one of many research areas highlighted at the Department of Defense Lab Day May 18 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.


The Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing spearheaded biosensor development using synthetic biology for environmental and human performance applications, an endeavor supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research since 2006.


A relatively new field of study, synthetic biology is interdisciplinary combining biology and engineering..


“If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, [then] synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works,” according to an article in The Atlantic.


AFRL’s 711 HPW and the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate are key contributors participating in the Applied Research for the Advancement of S&T Priorities Program on Synthetic Biology for Military Environments, a collaborative effort between AF, Army, and Navy that applies basic advances in synthetic biology and knowledge to meet unique defense needs and the specific challenges presented in military environments. 


Out of these efforts will come the ability to design DNA circuits that sense/respond in relevant military environments as well as the ability to develop more efficient synthetic biology tools, said Nancy Kelley-Loughnane, bioscience technical advisor to the 711 HPW chief scientist.


“As the field continues to develop, synthetic biology will enable control and processing of information, materials, energy and advances in human health/performance,” Kelley-Loughnane continued. “Expanding the sensor elements to more stable biomolecules will allow more near-term solutions for transition to the field.”


Synthetic biology enables revolutionary advances in the development of sensor detection modules, which have been developed using synthetic biological approaches by partnering across the DOD, other government agencies, academia and industry, she explained. The team is actively determining current deployment challenges with microbiome signatures in order to understand and recommend solutions.


Because the arenas within human performance research are so vast, there are many fields that synthetic biology research could help.


“The team is engineering microorganisms for accurate and sensitive detection of target chemicals and/or biomarkers in a diverse variety of fields such as environmental monitoring, defense, medicine and safety,” explained Kelley-Loughnane.


AFRL has been engineering bacteria to sense non-natural chemicals and report these detection events via protein production, according to Kelley-Loughnane. This work has led us to develop sensing elements that respond to molecules such as trinitrotoluene, more commonly known as TNT, and cortisol, a human stress hormone. The process for selecting a sensing element and the subsequent coupling of this sensing element with a functional reporter is critical for applications to human performance.


“The team is working with leaders in synthetic biology, pushing the limits of the ‘design, build, and test’ paradigm, in order to control and coordinate cellular functions – a responsive effort in human performance for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” explained Kelley-Loughnane.


The 711th Human Performance Wing, established under AFRL, leads the development, integration and delivery of Airman-centric research, education and consultation enabling the Air Force to achieve responsive and effective global vigilance, global reach and global power now and in the future.