The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has partnered with university researchers to study the use of synthetic or engineered cells in the development of next-generation genetic sensors to help sailors and marines in threat identification when conducting missions.
Known as 'Multidisciplinary University Initiative' (MURI), the model-guided discovery and optimisation of cell-based sensors programme is aimed at developing high-performance and robust genetic sensors using synthetic biology tools that respond to non-natural signals.
The navy is planning to use the capabilities of such smallest units of life by directing their natural functions and adding non-natural functions in assisting navy personnel.
Capable of responding to non-visible wavelengths of light such as ultraviolet and infrared, as well as magnetic fields, the genetic sensors will also support the 'smart' hybrid biological-robotic systems development, which can detect threats in the environment.
Supporting the MURI initiative are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Penn State, Rice University, Rutgers University, California Institute of Technology and University of Minnesota.
ONR naval biosciences and bio-centric technology programme officer Dr Linda Chrisey said: "We're developing better ways to programme cells to detect things we're interested in, like explosives, and then communicate that they've found that chemical to a device like a robot."
The research office is also undertaking multiple ongoing projects, aimed to develop new tools and methods for creating new organisms to meet specific functional requirement, such as threat monitoring, has in the field of synthetic biology.
"Synthetic biology is going to smarten that process up, make it less susceptible to failure and save money by allowing us greater control of the engineered cells," Chrisey added.
The MURI approach has been adopted to speed-up innovations, research and implementation of the end product into naval applications.