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Biological Technologies Office -- Ceres
The Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is soliciting proposals to develop innovative technologies and approaches to build synthetic plant-microbe communities that can either (1) cleanse soil contaminants from military installations and battlefields; or (2) overtly report soil status when cleanup is finished. Proposed research should combine innovative approaches to enable revolutionary advances in synthetic ecology, synthetic biology, and high throughput testing of terrestrial systems. Research that generates incremental improvements to the existing state of these scientific fields is specifically excluded.
Conventional soil bioremediation is laborious, inefficient, and expensive, requiring soil preparation, nutrient delivery to remediating organisms, and continuous site monitoring. Plants and their rhizosphere microbiomes have innate potential to inexpensively perform the costliest aspects of bioremediation—soil preparation, nutrient augmentation, and site monitoring—without routine human intervention. Leveraging the inherent plant-rhizosphere community, Ceres will enhance community performance by engineering synthetic communities to achieve autonomous bioremediation of a fuel, jet propellant 8 (JP-8), and an explosive, 2,4,6- trinitrotoluene (TNT), from soil while overtly reporting the status of this remediation. Advances in both synthetic biology and synthetic ecology could contribute to the creation of these sophisticated synthetic communities.
o Proposal Abstract Due Date and Time: 4:00 PM ET, November 8, 2022
o Full Proposal Due Date and Time: 4:00 PM ET, January 4, 2023
Areas of Interest
Ceres will be divided into two 24-month phases, and one 6-month phase comprised of a final demonstration performed by an independent verification and validation (IV&V) team. HR001123S0012 is not soliciting proposals for IV&V, and the Ceres IV&V team will be selected separately by the Government. The Cleaner Track, Beacon Track, and Combined Track all require proposers to develop a functionally resilient synthetic community via four technical areas (TAs) across the first two phases.
In TA1 (Engineer Root Communities), proposers must identify or engineer rhizosphere microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, other microbial eukaryotes, archaea, etc.) that persist in contaminated soil with the support of the plant host and subsequently refine these microorganisms into track-specific functional communities.
In TA2 (Engineer Plants), for either the Cleaner and Beacon tracks, the plant engineered by the proposer must support TA1 microbial community growth. Moreover, for the Cleaner Track, the plant should enhance the Cleaner community’s metabolic activity to increase contaminant degradation rates. Likewise, for the Beacon Track, the plant should also detect signals from the rhizosphere community indicating contamination and then relay those signals to the surface for unaided human observation. Additionally, because rhizosphere community establishment, maintenance, and movement are tightly connected to the plant, the engineered rhizosphere community (TA1) and engineered plant host (TA2) for each track must be functionally integrated by the end of Phase I.
In TA3 (Engineer Ecological Containment), proposers must demonstrate robust biocontainment strategies for controlling the GMOs in the synthetic communities to enable future regulatory approval for soil-controlled greenhouse-testing. Such strategies may include synthetic biology approaches, such as evolutionarily stable ‘off switches’, but must include ecological containment, such as the removal of keystone species or auxotrophy, that leads to the removal of engineered organisms within the rhizosphere. The intent is that the rhizosphere community collapses in the absence of the supporting plant host. The plant component of the synthetic community may be removed through conventional techniques or may be engineered to drive itself out of its own niche.
Finally, in TA4 (Develop Testbeds), proposers will develop high-throughput testbeds that emulate realistic environmental conditions in the laboratory to test synthetic community functionality and biocontainment. Teams must detail in the proposals the key abiotic parameters they will target that characterize the environmental conditions of the target deployment biomes.