How Kombucha tea inspired a new way for soldiers to defend against chemical attacks

"Living materials could provide the most effective sensing of chem/bio warfare agents."

It was a beautiful Earth Day when The Army walked into its local Whole Foods in Boulder, Colo. to try kombucha tea to help better align its chakras before afternoon yoga. Standing there in its Lululemon leggings and Patagonia fleece, The Army sipped the fizzy drink, smiled and thought “You know what? This could be great for detecting and neutralizing chemical or biological warfare agents!”

No, that’s not what actually happened, but it’s what this reporter would like to imagine. What actually happened is that Army-funded scientists in the U.S. and United Kingdom were inspired by the fermented tea drink kombucha to try using bacteria and yeast cultures to sense environmental pollutants and develop self-healing materials.

The development could be a huge step forward for creating compounds that can detect and break down chemical or biological warfare agents, according to a recent press release written by Lisa Bistreich-Wolfe of the Army Research Laboratory.

“Our community believes that living materials could provide the most effective sensing of chem/bio warfare agents, especially those of unknown genetics and chemistry,” said Dr. Jim Burgess, the program manager for the Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, Army Research Office, in the press release.

Kombucha is, at its core, a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast, according to the Mayo Clinic. By adding a colony of bacteria and yeast to sugar and tea and allowing the mix to ferment, it creates a fizzy drink that many people say helps prevent and manage serious health conditions, though these claims are not backed by science, Mayo Clinic writes.

kombucha
The kind of synergy the Army of the future is looking for. (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

Fermentation is also used to produce wine, beer, yogurt and loads of other tasty food and drinks. The thing that makes these Army-funded experiments kombucha-specific is a type of bacteria called Komagataeibacter rhaeticus. Scientists at Imperial College London had previously isolated that species from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) used in kombucha.

Researchers discovered that rhaeticus, combined with a laboratory-grown strain of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, can produce living materials that can be engineered to do crazy sci-fi shit, like sense pollutants or pathogens or create self-repairing materials. 

“This is important to the Army as this can lead to new materials with potential applications in microbial fuel cells, sense and respond systems, and self-reporting and self-repairing materials,” said Dr. Dawanne Poree, program manager of the Army Research Office.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Imperial College London were the two sites where Army-funded scientists worked on SCOBY applications. Researchers used the SCOBYs to create living materials that could be used to purify water for troops in the field, glow in the dark, detect and destroy pathogens, or make smart packaging materials that can detect damage. 

For example, researchers created one strain that senses estradiol, a form of environmental pollutant. Another produced a protein that glows when exposed to blue light. Different yeasts can be swapped out to detect other pollutants, metals or pathogens, Bistreich-Wolfe wrote.

On top of that, the SCOBY-produced technology can grow quickly and in vast quantities. It takes only two days to grow the material, and it can fill up a bathtub’s worth of space if left alone long enough.

“We foresee a future where diverse materials could be grown at home or in local production facilities, using biology rather than resource-intensive centralized manufacturing,” said Timothy Lu, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering.

At press time, The Army was still in yoga class, purifying the air with healing crystals and essential oils. 

Related: Futurist P.W. Singer on military computing, the mind-blowing rise of AI, and what sex bots can teach us about ethics

David Roza

David Rozacovers the Air Force and anything Star Wars-related. He joined Task & Purpose in 2019, after covering local news in Maine and then FDA policy in Washington D.C. He loves hearing the stories of individual airmen and their families, and he also holds the unpopular opinion that Imperial stormtroopers are actually excellent marksmen. david.roza@taskandpurpose.com Contact the author here.

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