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Military Microbes: Scientists Recruit Bacteria for Missile Research

By Kate Ruder

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A Seahawk helicopter deploys a Hellfire missile during a training exercise.
Scientists funded by the U.S. military are using bacteria to produce a chemical propellant for missiles. The program is still in the testing stages, but the hope is that eventually the bacteria will be mini-factories, producing enough chemicals to make propellants for weapons like the Hellfire missiles deployed from Apache combat helicopters.

If successful, the program offers a way to produce the chemical, called butanetriol, more cheaply and cleanly than through current methods. The project, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research, is underway at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Right now, butanetriol costs about $40 per pound to make, and the U.S. military purchases roughly 15,000 pounds per year. Navy researchers hope to use bacteria to reduce the cost of production to $15 per pound and save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The microbes themselves will not be propelled along with the missiles. Rather, they make the chemical for the missile propellants.

The scientists add genes from other organisms to the genomes of bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas to induce the bacteria to make the chemical butanetriol. In a flask, they feed bacteria sugar and the bacteria produce the chemical. Then the scientists extract the chemical from the test tube and dispose of the bacteria.

They call the process “bioproduction” or “green production” because it is more environmentally friendly than petroleum-based processes currently used to make butanetriol.

“We’re making the argument not only that it’s green, but that it’s also more economic to do it [make butanetriol] this way. That’s the argument we have to win to sell this to the Navy,” says Harold Bright of the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, who initiated the research project.

Right now, the researchers cannot make enough butanetriol to propel a Hellfire missile, but over the next three years, they hope to scale up the process.

Niu, W. et al. Microbial Synthesis of the Energetic Material Precursor 1,2,4-Butanetriol. Journal of the American Chemical Society 125, 12998-9 (October 29, 2003).

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