Army Seeks to Establish Self Sufficiency
By Dr. Brian B. Feeney
Industrial revolutions are rare, but when they come, they change everything. We are at the start of just such a time now. The convergence of synthetic biology, robotics, and biomanufacturing is ushering in a new bioeconomy that is based on biotechnologies rather than petrochemical production.
The Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC) is expanding its biomanufacturing capabilities to be the tip of the spear in this effort – and in the process, providing a big job boost by helping to establish a bioeconomy in the U.S. and Maryland.
What is Biomanufacturing?
“Currently, the critical chemicals the nation needs both for national security and to sustain the 21st Century economy are manufactured in costly petrochemical facilities,” said Dr. Peter Emanuel, the Center’s senior research scientist for bioengineering and overall leader of the DEVCOM CBC biomanufacturing initiative. “Many crucial chemicals are either manufactured by a single source domestically, or worse yet, inside foreign nations that may not always be willing to supply us. Biomanufacturing is a manufacturing revolution that can make the United States self-sufficient and far more sophisticated in its chemical manufacturing.”
Biomanufacturing enables the creation of high-performance, high value materials by controlling the genetic makeup of the organisms that make them. Much like a microbrewery that produces craft beers, biomanufacturing uses bacteria in vats to ferment new materials. However, biomanufacturing is not entirely a new concept – the use of microorganisms to produce military-relevant products dates back to 1916, when bacteria were first used to produce acetone that was critical for the manufacture of explosive propellants. But today, genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 and the interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology have given us an unprecedented degree of control over microbial metabolism. Using those engineering tools, we can specify DNA sequences in a microbe to direct the production of new materials, each with highly specialized and valuable properties.
“The critical chemicals that domestic, low-cost biomanufacturing can produce include energy-dense propellants and explosives, reactive coatings and textiles, optical and sensor materials that can bend light, and new therapeutics such as antimicrobials and vaccines,” said Dr. Henry Gibbons, a DEVCOM CBC microbiologist and program manager of the Center’s current biomanufacturing expansion effort.