Jared DeCoste, Ph.D., observes MOFs via a fluorescence confocal microscope.
Photo by Shawn Nesaw.

Army Researchers Leverage Synthetic Biology to Explore Universal Decontamination Material

Army Researchers Leverage Synthetic Biology to Explore Universal Decontamination Material

By Shawn Nesaw

The U.S. Army has more than a few technologies to decontaminate chemical agents. Some work well against mustard agent, some decontaminate nerve agents more effectively, and some work well against agent in different physical forms such as aerosol. But what if Soldiers could use one universal decontamination tool against any agent threat they came in contact with?

Researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center have set out to do just that – develop a universal decontamination capability through synthetic biology.

The research is a product of the Biological Engineering for Applied Materials Solutions program, known at the Center as BEAMS. Established 18 months ago, BEAMS keeps scientists hungry, striving for newer, bigger and better warfighter solutions. Center scientist Jared DeCoste, Ph.D., is the principle investigator on the project, leading the overall research effort.

“This is an interdisciplinary effort,” DeCoste explained. “No one person could have broad enough expertise to accomplish what we’re trying to do.”

“The BEAMS program is bringing scientists from around the Center together to collaborate and ultimately work towards creating new technologies that benefit the warfighter,” said Eric L. Moore, Ph.D., director of CCDC Chemical Biological Center. “We’re investing in ourselves through BEAMS.”

The Research

Research for this project revolves around combinations of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and special organic compounds called porphyrins, which are derived from E.coli. Using synthetic biology, researchers are developing a solid decontamination material that could support any and all decontamination needs for warfighters.

Center researchers chose to modify E.coli due to its simplicity as an organism and the ability to easily modify E.coli’s DNA, a function necessary in order to produce an E.coli biproduct called protoporphyrin IX.

Typically, scientists would synthesize new materials chemically in a classic lab setting, creating reactions through chemistry. In this case, there was no way for scientists to create protoporphyrin IX through traditional chemical means.

“For us, protoporphyrin IX is incredibly interesting,” DeCoste said. “We can do things with this we can’t do with other molecules.”

Porphyrin molecules, including protoporphyrin IX, have the ability to absorb light and modify oxygen, creating a highly reactive oxygen – known as singlet oxygen – that has the ability to decontaminate mustard agent.

Once the team created protoporphyrin IX, they turned to a very specific MOF known for its stability, porous makeup and ability to decontaminate chemical agents – NU-1000.
NU-1000’s pores help increase reaction time, while its overall structure can support the addition of other molecules without compromising the MOF’s decontamination ability.

“We needed a MOF that would act as a support for protoporphyrin IX,” said DeCoste. “NU-1000 inherently decontaminates G-agents such as sarin and VX but we also knew it couldn’t decontaminate mustard well, so putting the two together resulted in a more versatile material.”

While the team hypothesized combining protoporphyrin IX and NU-1000 would work, they were surprised with the results. “It worked even better than we hypothesized,” DeCoste said.

Researchers test different light wavelengths on MOFs to understand which wavelengths are absorbed and how they can harness light for decontamination purposes.

Harnessing Light

NU-1000 absorbs light, creating reactive oxygen species that can induce photocatalytic oxidation reactions under UV and blue light. While these wavelengths are a small part of white light and sunlight, researchers knew it was a head start in enhancing the reaction.

“Our team sees a lot of benefits to creating a material that absorbs light to decontaminate agent,” DeCoste said. “Light from the sun is usually present during operations in the field, so why not try to create a material that utilizes the sun’s light?”

The team is currently experimenting with other light wavelengths to determine which light works best for decontamination so when sunlight isn’t available, decontamination can still occur using artificial light.

Through research, the team saw positive results when the MOF and protoporphyrin IX were combined and exposed to white light. Half decontamination, a common metric used in this type of research, occurred in 25 minutes.

Future Research

Moving forward, the team looks to perfect the decontamination of mustard agent while decreasing the decontamination time.

“Ultimately, we want to use the sun to decontaminate a Soldier’s uniform in real-time,” DeCoste said. “We know the wavelengths of light we can harness to potentially optimize toward a product for the warfighter.”

Additionally, the team is looking to optimize the biosynthetic pathway, the procedure of developing the protoporphyrin IX at the E.coli level, so they can produce the most protoporphyrin IX possible for future experimentation.

The team also plans to explore other porphyrins to test in the NU-1000 MOF platform to see if any have a positive effect on improving the reactions.

Beyond that, DeCoste is interested in studying the photophysics of their research so they have the highest level of control possible over the reactions.

“We proved this works but we still want to know more about how the light is interacting with matter on a basic level,” DeCoste said. “We always look to understand the basics of what we’re doing to gain the deepest understanding possible about the materials and capabilities we’re developing.”

DeCoste noted that the research could lead to improvements on large-scale decontamination capabilities. He envisions new self-decontamination coatings for vehicles, sensors, weapons and tools that react with sunlight or artificial light source to decontaminate quickly and easily.

Beyond Mustard

Protoporphyrin IX only attaches to the ends of NU-1000 meaning mustard reactions will occur at those sites but the entire middle of the MOF still maintains the ability to react with VX and G agents.

In the future, porphyrins might only be a piece of a larger, more complex material that has other molecules added to it to increase its overall impact.

“Our goal is to provide the warfighter the smallest amount of material that can react the most and ultimately deliver the biggest impact,” DeCoste said.

Jared DeCoste, Ph.D., observes MOFs via a fluorescence confocal microscope.
Photo by Shawn Nesaw.