Ears on the ocean floor

Scientists explore whether living organisms could serve as sensors

Raytheon Technologies is exploring ways to enlist living organisms like bacteria and shrimp as sensors, sounding the alarm on such threats as passing submarines or buried explosives.

“We’ve reached a point,” said Bradford Tousley, president of Raytheon BBN Technologies, “where advances in synthetic biology and enormous strides in processing power open up entirely new sensing possibilities.”  

Using synthetic biology techniques that allow scientists to program cells, Raytheon Technologies is exploring whether bacteria can locate explosives buried underground. The company is programming two bacterial strains that can serve as bomb detectors. The first locates buried explosives. If it finds them, the second strain will send a bright, glowing light to the surface, serving as a warning sign for overhead aircraft to see.

"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 Raytheon Technologies' Bio Reporters for Subterranean Surveillance program. "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."

Marine life in coastal waters could present another potential breakthrough. Snapping shrimp exhibit a unique behavior that makes them especially good candidates as underwater sensors. When they close their claws, a bubble shoots out from the pressure, producing a sound louder than the average gunshot.

Raytheon Technologies scientists believe that explosive sound might work as a passive sonar to detect reflections from intruding vehicles like submarines. Without interfering with the shrimp in any way, this work could create a natural, at-sea alarm system.

“By tapping into the behavior of snapping shrimp and other marine critters, we can track adversarial threats discreetly and persistently," said Alison Laferrierre, principal investigator.

These living organisms are just two examples of what the next generation of sensors could look like - and how they could transform the future.

"They could help us monitor the environment, track distant threats and give decision makers information quickly," Tousley said.