Lockheed Martin is turning to the littlest factories imaginable to develop a new generation of advanced materials. Working under a US$10 million, five-year contract called the Self-Assembly of Nanostructures for Tunable Materials, the aerospace giant in cooperation with the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) will develop ways to bioengineer the DNA in single-cell organisms as a way to create new materials with an emphasis on defense optical technology and coatings.

Ever since gene splicing was invented back in the 1970s, it's proven to be a major tool in the fields of medicine and biochemistry. Even the simplest of living cells is a miniature chemical factory, with a sophistication and complexity that makes the most advanced plastics works look like an old saucepan on a cheap gas ring.

Bioengineering has not only allowed for such high-profile items like GMO crops, but also a means of turning microbes into tiny production centers to create everything from pharmaceuticals to spider silk. It's a technique that's already practical, but Lockheed says that it still operates on too small a scale and lacks the quality required for defense applications.

Image of bio-produced magnetic particles supplied by a Lockheed Martin and Army Research Labs (ARL) partner

To remedy this, the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center along with ARL will explore how to scale up and improve biodesigns. According to the company, this could one day produce telescopes with filter coating based on squid eyes and UV protection using molecules similar to the melanin found in animal and human skin.

"We can't manufacture that kind of capability, so Lockheed Martin will try nature's way," says Melissa Rhoads, senior research manager and Lockheed Martin lead for the project. "Harnessing the power of self-assembling materials is sustainable, affordable and can be much faster to produce than artificial methods. As much potential [as] there is for biodesign, the maturity of the materials technology is still low, so our five-year study will advance this field significantly for precision science."

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