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The U.S. military hopes that common marine microorganisms (single-celled forms, bacteria, etc.) might be genetically engineered into living wires to signal the passage of enemy subs, underwater vessels, or even divers. It’s one of many potential military applications for so-called engineered organisms, a field promising among many developments living camouflage that reacts to its surroundings to better avoid detection.

According to, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is supporting the research. Here’s how it would work: You take an abundant sea organism and change its genetic makeup to react to certain substances left by enemy vessels, divers, or equipment. The reaction could take the form of electron loss, which could be detectable to friendly sub drones.

NRL researcher Sarah Glaven believes the research is about a year away from providing concrete evidence that she can engineer reactions in marine life forms that could prove useful for the military. Sub-hunting, in particular, is “what we would like it to be applicable for,” she said. “The reason we think we can accomplish this is because we have this vast database of info we’ve collected from growing these natural systems. So after experiments where we look at switching gene potential, gene expression, regulatory networks, we are finding these sensors,” said Glaven.

There’s currently a $45 million effort across the Army, Navy and Air Force, dubbed the Applied Research for the Advancement of Science and Technology Priorities Program on Synthetic Biology for Military Environments, aimed at giving researchers the tools they need to engineer genetic responses into organisms that would be useful for the military.

“We want to move synthetic biology from the laboratory to the field. That’s a big thrust of ours and so there’s a lot of tool development in order to do that,” said Dimitra Stratis-Cullum, who leads the biomaterials team at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. “If you want to move a biological bio-based sensor to the field you try to ruggedize those organisms. You try to protect them. You try to basically increase their longevity in these harsh environments. So if you had, for example, embedded in a uniform a sensor that detects a hazard that’s a bio-based sensor.”