Bacteria are typically thought of as health threats, but they may soon become battlefield allies. Raytheon is exploring the use of synthetic biological science to create a new method for detecting buried explosives. Working with partner Worcester Polytechnic Institute under a contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research involves programming two strains of bacteria to monitor ground surfaces for explosive materials.
One strain of bacteria will be programmed to search for buried explosives. If it detects explosives under the ground surface, the second strain of bacteria will produce a glowing light on the surface of the ground in the area of detection. That, in turn, will signal remote cameras or robotic systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) with electro-optical (EO) or infrared (IR) cameras/sensors to communicate information about the location of the explosives underground.
“We already know that some bacteria can be programmed to be very good at detecting explosives, but it's harder underground,” said Allison Taggart, Ph.D. and principal investigator for the Bio Reporters for Subterranean Surveillance program at Raytheon BBN Technologies. “We're investigating how to transport the reporting bacteria to the required depth underground, and then pushing the luminescence up to the surface so it's easily visible.” Taggart also pointed out the benefits of the modular approach, “The modular design of the system we're developing will allow us to swap in different components as needed to detect various kinds of threats and contaminants.”