Tri-Service effort leverages synthetic biology expertise to address future warfighter needs

  • Published
  • By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio --  Taking advantage of Department of Defense research laboratory expertise in chemistry, biology, computer science and material science and engineering, a collaborative, $45 million tri-service effort is changing the way the DoD exploits biological systems to meet the unique needs and challenges of defense environments.

The Applied Research for the Advancement of Science and Technology Priorities Program on Synthetic Biology for Military Environments, funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, unites subject matter experts from the Air Force, Army and Navy. The effort is aimed at creating organic capabilities and infrastructure for the use of synthetic biology in the DoD as a key enabler for future defense technology.

Synthetic biology, though well established in industry, is still a relatively new field of application for the DoD. This interdisciplinary field combines the understanding of how genes operate and  are organized in cells with engineering principles, to modify organisms for beneficial applications in areas such as performance augmentation, sensor development and materials synthesis, to name a few.

“There are consumer products on the market that depend on this technology. We’re trying to grow its use in the DoD,” said Dr. Claretta Sullivan, a research scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, who is also the Tri-Service Program Manager for SBME. “Our team is looking at ways we can reprogram cells that already exist in the environment to create environmentally friendly platforms for generating molecules and materials beneficial for defense needs.”

By leveraging the subject matter expertise based in each of the DoD research laboratories, the SBME program seeks to establish a multi-functional, joint capability in synthetic biology, ultimately creating an ecosystem that ensures the U.S. military remains at the forefront in the field as it applies to defense objectives. Nearing the end of the first of three years, the program is already facilitating a higher level of technical awareness and cooperation among the Service Labs. At its end, enduring capabilities and expertise in synthetic biology will be the program’s legacy for years to come. 

“This provides us with the opportunity to create that cross-cutting infrastructure and ensure there is effective communication between the DoD labs,” said Dr. Rajesh Naik, the SBME lead based at the AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “We have the smarts within the DoD when it comes to SynBio, but we are now developing the infrastructure and community to exploit the advantages for our needs.”

According to Naik, with synthetic biology as a field that is a “mile wide and a mile deep,” the SBME team recognized a need to focus their technical efforts and resources early in the program planning process to best enable success and continued collaboration beyond its end. An Executive Steering Committee with representation from each of the service labs was established to oversee three focused task teams, each of which is led by a different service lab. They are augmented by a technical advisory group comprised of external academic, industrial and federal partners who advocate for the SBME team in the larger community.

It’s a complex arrangement, but it is critical to ensuring focused efforts on program priorities.

“Keeping the team in close communication is a challenge. We have regular meetings and virtual telecoms nearly every week,” said Sullivan. “The fact that the team members are able to do this is remarkable and reflects their commitment to do good science and the best work possible for the DoD.”

The three SBME task teams combine the expertise, capabilities and tools from each of the service labs into a single, focused effort to meet the aim of a task effort. For example, the Navy Laboratory is leading a tri-service task team focused on developing systems biology tools in an open systems architecture, with the goal of creating a set of collaborative tools to enable SBME applications. Another task, led by the Air Force, is working to develop and prototype a cell-based system that is optimized for use in military environments. The Army labs are leading the effort to develop cell-free platforms for testing and delivering the genetic components.

The task teams are comprised of members from each of the different service laboratories, which facilitates a larger knowledge base and broader set of tools accessible to the group. A strong focus on standardizing protocols and methodologies pervades all of the task efforts to ensure effective information sharing across the domain.

“The program is really beneficial in helping to make sure that different service labs do not replicate the same efforts. We can take advantage of the work that is going on across the labs and within the overall SynBio community,” said Dr. Banahalli Ratna, Naval Research Laboratory.

Though this collaborative effort is less than one year old, the members are already seeing the upshots of their efforts. In addition to standardizing protocols and enterprise sharing environments, several scientific publications have resulted from collaborative efforts within the group, and a working demonstration of a complicated, responsive gene network which operates in a simulated environment is expected to be delivered by the end of the effort.

Additionally, the Air Force, Army and Navy Research Laboratories will each field a team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation’s iGEM Competition in Boston, November 2017. This international competition enables high school and college-aged student teams to compete as they address problems using synthetic biology, ultimately evolving the field and contributing to the future of the science in this area. The competition not only augments the scientific field, but adds a healthy dose of fun and competition to the SBME community.

"This Tri-service investment is allowing Army, Navy and Air Force to each field their own iGEM teams for the first time. This gives us a healthy dose of fun competition,” said Dr. Peter Emanuel, a senior scientist for biological engineering for the Army.

In the end, the SBME program is a unique, dedicated effort committed to advancing the field of synthetic biology by leveraging the expertise embedded in each of the military research laboratories to the benefit of our nation’s warfighters across the spectrum.

“The DoD represents the largest research and development effort within the federal sector, and we’re spread out over Air Force, Army and Navy bases that may be hundreds of miles apart. This program has made me more aware of the capabilities in the DoD than ever before--without this awareness, leveraging of capabilities would never be possible,” said Emmanuel.