Perhaps one day, cybered-up soldiers and futuristic spy satellites will tote antennas built by bio-synthetic microorganisms.
That’s if a new pitch by scientific firm InnoCentive finds the right researchers. The company—which crowdsources scientific projects—is handing out a $50,000 award for research proposals involving the “control of large-scale synthesis of nanoparticles in living organisms” which can lead to “highly-ordered magneto-dielectric meta-material for broadband antenna applications.”
In other words, synthetic biology. This scientific field is both relatively new, ill-defined and very complicated. Where genetic engineering boils down to taking genes from one plant—for example—and adding it to another, synthetic biology is about creating new self-replicating lifeforms from the DNA up.
When it comes to the military, this research conjures visions of rampaging bio-weapons, but the Pentagon wants to apply the research to make better antennas and batteries for solar panels. InnoCentive also makes mention of the potential military uses.
“Research has already demonstrated the potential for synthetic biology to have major effects on important national security applications,” the proposal states. “Including in the materials field of interest here.”
This is also seriously far-out research, so proposals tend to be highly specific in what they intend to accomplish, and also highly vague in the possible—future—applications.
But manipulating nanoparticles inside an antenna—such as those on a satellite or the kind soldiers might carry in the field—could allow for a high level of resonance and much more powerful antenna. One way to do it is to create “nanoparticles with controllable features such as size, morphology, composition, and crystal structure,” the pitch notes.
The relevance of synthetic biology to the military also reflects the fact that the Pentagon and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency—which put $8 million into synthetic biology research this year—remain major funders of scientific work.
This isn’t just due to military interest. The research is a bit too novel and too slow to produce results to attract as much attention from private investors. But InnoCentive is determined to try.
Synthetic biology is also already a small part of industries such as bio-fuels, cosmetics and artificial flavorings. The general idea is that it’s easier to engineer microbes to do certain tasks than to do them by conventional methods.
But certain kinds of nano-scale “meta-materials” could also theoretically lead to objects like optical nanocircuits and camouflage. They might even help scientists create self-replicating cells that can produce more environmentally-friendly explosives and rocket fuels.
The problem with applying synthetic biology to make bombs is that it raises ethical questions about biological research and war—especially involving long-standing prohibitions on bio-weapons. Though in this case, scientists are just dealing with some profoundly weird antennas.