What keeps you up at night?, I ask. 

“Being left behind. And the reason is that when you start to slow down, you lose grasp on what is cutting edge and what is coming around the corner,” Dr. Alexander Titus replies. “It is the Department’s responsibility to understand what the threats are to the United States,”

Dr. Titus is the new Assistant Director for Biotechnology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure the United States’ security. The US military is currently undergoing a modernization initiative. Dr. Titus leads biotechnology modernization, one of several new priorities within the DoD’s research program. His job: develop a ten-year roadmap to keep the nation’s defenses at the leading edge of biotechnology and specifically synthetic biology: the process of making biology easier to engineer.

For some, hearing the words ‘defense’ and ‘biotechnology’ used in the same sentence triggers a sense of unease at the thought of the DoD developing biological weapons. But the US military isn’t developing bioweapons, and nor does it want to. In fact it’s a signatory to a number of important international treaties to make sure that nobody develops them. But the military must anticipate how to respond to other actors with mal intent to use this technology.  

Dr. Titus has a two-pronged approach. Using biotechnology to make sure the military has the capability to defend against an unwanted attack, but he also envisions a completely new relationship with biology, one where the military’s technology stack is upgraded – where synthetic biology, and other tools that allow reading, writing and editing of DNA, are providing a number of solutions to a range of unmet needs from food, fuel, materials and more: 

“We see the potential in all of the future benefits that synthetic biology is going to provide to the Department, the United States, and the global economy,” Dr. Titus explains. “the United States is a leader in this technology”. 

Imagine living camouflage like a chameleon, a biological engine fueled by sunlight, or self healing armour, or a nightlight powered by the same chemistry that powers a firefly (actually this already exists!).  These may sound like science fiction right now, but if biology becomes fully engineerable then they may not be science fiction in the future. 

Dr. Titus imagines living, growing structures in the future of synthetic biology. “I really am enthralled with the ability to grow living structures,” Dr. Titus says. “If you could engineer an organism to have a naturally occurring structure that is a house or a building, or even a car, and then you add some mechanical applications to it. That’s really what I’m excited about” he adds.  

“The way that we look at synthetic biology is through the ability to manufacture with a whole new type of technology,” Dr. Titus says. Synthetic biology can help improve the ability to manufacture chemicals in a new way, that is more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective. 

“The reason we modernize is to make sure that our warfighters have the safest, most secure and effective equipment to carry out their mission” Dr. Titus explains. With bioengineered spider silk and other new materials, it is easy to imagine synthetic biology’s use to improve warfighters’ clothing and vehicles.  

Synthetic biology can help improve the ability to manufacture chemicals in a new way, that is more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective. 

Dr. Alexander Titus

With much of synthetic biology’s advancement happening in the start-up environment and in industry, Dr. Titus, a former McKinsey management consultant is used to working with technology startups and explains that the Defense Department needs to be engaging with biotech startups and the synthetic biology industry. In the coming weeks, the Department will release a request for information on ways to partner better with the private sector in the synthetic biology space. 

“The possibilities are endless for what we can use. And that’s why it’s such an important technology to us,” he adds.  

Thank you to Stephanie Michelsen for additional research and reporting in this post.