US military to develop genetically modified plants to spy in environments ‘unsuitable for traditional sensors’
−− New synthetic biology programme makes use of natural capabilities to gather intelligence
Nov. 28, 2017
The US military wants to deploy plants as “the next generation of intelligence gatherers”.
Genetically modified plants could be employed as self-sustaining sensors to gather information in settings unsuitable for more traditional technologies.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies in the US military, has called for scientists to submit ideas for how to harness the power of plants.
In the past, DARPA has produced information-gathering technologies such as the satellites and seismographs employed to ensure Soviet compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But in this new initiative, termed the Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme, the agency is looking to the natural world for help.
“Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests and pathogens,” said Dr Blake Bextine, the manager of the ATP programme.
“Emerging molecular and modelling techniques may make it possible to reprogramme these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors,” said Dr Bextine.
The idea is that plants’ natural capabilities can be co-opted to detect relevant chemicals, harmful microorganisms, radiation and electromagnetic signals.
Modifying the genomes of plants would enable the military to control the types of sensing they are doing, and also trigger certain responses that can be monitored remotely using existing hardware.
Technology already exists to monitor plants from the ground, air and even from space.
“Advanced Plant Technologies is a synthetic biology programme at heart,” said Dr Bextine.
“As with DARPA’s other work in that space, our goal is to develop an efficient, iterative system for designing, building, and testing models so that we end up with a readily adaptable platform capability that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios.”
Past experiments with plants that have been modified in this manner have resulted in organisms that have difficulty settling in the natural environment, where they would be deployed.
The additional strain placed on the modified plants by their new duties makes it difficult for them to survive and compete with surrounding plants. This will be a key area that the new programme seeks to address.
The "proposers day" is being held on 12 December in Arlington, Virginia. It will lay out the objectives of DARPA’s programme and take submissions for research projects that are relevant to the initiative.
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