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Construction Corner: Growing materials on demand where they’re needed

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DARPA, it has been said, is in the business of turning science fiction into fact.

Its work is related to defence, but from time to time it ventures into areas of interest to the civilian world.

And now DARPA — the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency — has branched into a scientific field that is so new and has grown so fast that people are still arguing over the definition of it.

Call it what you will, but synthetic biology has come to the American defence department.

Just a few weeks ago DARPA announced its Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program, designed to develop tools and methods to be used in the engineering of structural features into cellular systems that function as living materials.

That sounds pretty abstract, but what it aims to do is open up a new area of material design for construction technology.

If the ELM people can pull this off, it will result in living materials that show all the hallmarks of biological systems, like being able to sense the environment around them and respond to it, or to heal itself after being damaged.

The concepts incorporated into synthetic biology have grown rapidly in recent years.

Think of the genetically modified crops that so many people love to hate. While many of them contain a single engineered gene, synthetic biology makes it easier to generate larger clumps of genes or parts of genes.

Those clumps can then be engineered by more conventional methods into plants or microbes. Researchers are already using the technique in their efforts to create more nutritious food crops that thrive with less use of chemical fertilizers and in more variable climates and on land that at present can’t support intensive farming.

We often hear that we live a world where everything is connected, so it’s not surprising that some of the techniques used to create better food are shared in the search for living materials. That leads us back to DARPA.

Justin Gallivan, the program manager for the ELM program, says the idea is "to grow materials on demand where they are needed."

"Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources," he said in a statement. "And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage."

We’ve been hearing about growing materials for construction for a while now. One example is using fungal mycelium to grow everything from surf boards to wallboard. Creating bricks from bacteria and sand is another example. And wood construction material has been with us for millennia.

But all of these products are rendered inert during the manufacturing process. So they really don’t have any of the biological advantages of their original components.

What DARPA wants, and what it is asking companies to provide under ELM, is the ability to engineer structural properties right into the genomes of biological systems. It wants engineered technologies that support the rapid growth and long-term viability of living cells that endow the final products with biological functions.

It wants those materials to exhibit aspects of both the inert grown materials that are already being produced today, like structural integrity, as well as those of living systems, such as self-repair.

And it wants all this in technology that can be scaled up and moved from the laboratory to industry within a few years.

DARPA’s interest of course is the ability to produce engineered biological systems that can be applied wherever the U.S. defence department has interests.

But setting defence interests aside, the program holds out hope of sustainable biologically engineered building materials that will serve civilian interests in a warming world where sustainability is becoming more important every day.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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