Spy corn

With synthetic biology, a new way to tell when danger is in the air

Still frame from animation showing a genetically modified ear of corn changing color after exposure to a toxic substance in the air.

This illustration shows how scientists might use synthetic biology to turn something ordinary, like a crop of corn, into a sensor that secretly warns of chemical agents in the air.

Synthetic biology can turn ordinary things into extraordinary intelligence-gathering tools.

WHAT IT WILL BE

Specially engineered crops and other living things that react to something in the environment – such as harmful chemical or biological agents – then change their appearance slightly as a secret signal to those who need to know.

WHY WE NEED IT

Analyzing the air in a combat zone without actually being there would protect troops, and doing it unbeknownst to the enemy would be an intelligence win. It's just one potential use of synthetic biology – an emerging and ethically complex field that, when done responsibly, could bring major improvements in areas such as military technology, healthcare, agriculture and energy.

WHY IT'S A MOONSHOT

There's no way around it: Synthetic biology means you're altering nature. It requires attributing everything about an organism back to something in its cellular structure, then treating those cells like computer chips, inserting circuits and essentially reprogramming until you get the desired effect.

It's hard enough to do that once, but to get synthetic biology to work, you have to do it repeatedly, said Susan Katz, a computer scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies. You have to do it at scale.

"Cells are so smart," she said. "You have to work really hard to get them to do what you want them to do, and get them to do it over and over again."

WHAT IT TAKES

Modeling, testing and engineering discipline. Synthetic biology starts with using computer-aided design tools to draw circuits and simulate their response to certain situations, then analyzing the data and making adjustments along the way. It's a little less exciting than putting things in test tubes – but no less important.

"Bringing that kind of discipline, of building systems and testing systems, into this area, gives us a lot of experience that is very useful," Katz said.

HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD

At its best, synthetic biology could create highly precise medications, crops that need less water, materials that require no petroleum and meat that requires no animals (and produces no harmful emissions).

"The sky is the limit for the advances that can be made in the health and welfare of the world's population," Katz said. "The world can be a better place with this technology."

PREVIOUS: LASER MISSILE DEFENSE

NEXT: HYPERSONIC FLIGHT

Published On: 04/22/2019
Last Updated: 09/09/2019