It may be science fiction now, but biotechnology may be an important military tool in the future.
Imagine a soldier staying cool while marching through a sweltering jungle because his body temperature is controlled by his uniform. Blinded by the vegetation, someone back at camp guides him through an earpiece because the base camp can trace the biomarker in a nutrition bar he ate earlier.
An alarm in his wristwatch sounds when it detects a toxic chemical agent. The visor on his helmet quickly snaps down while his uniform monitors his vital signs and administers any drugs necessary to help him complete the mission.
Fantasy? Sure, but a study suggests this fiction could soon be fact.
Sixteen leading academic and industry scientists from across the country conducted a study that predicts how biotechnology will develop over the next 25 years and highlights areas that might benefit the U.S. Army.
Possible applications range from genetically-engineered foods that don't spoil to uniforms that detect and treat wounds.
Over the past five years the Army has begun to form partnerships with laboratories — both industrial and academic — to keep abreast of developments in biotechnology, says James Valdes, a scientific adviser at the Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command in Maryland.
"Big companies don't want to make the kind of stuff we need because the profit margins aren't there," Valdes said. "So we have to sort of very selectively go after the research areas that are uniquely applicable to the Department of Defense."
Such areas include creating lightweight materials to reduce the load of the current soldier's roughly 90-pound rucksack; coating helmets with substances that absorb solar energy to power in-field computers; and developing systems that make fuel-using plants or even food wrappers and used cloth.
Foods that are digested easier could also be developed, and even laced with compounds called biomarkers that would allow a soldier to be tracked by satellite, according to the report. The biomarkers could also be used to spot American troops and avoid "friendly fire" accidents.
Rashid Bashir, a Purdue University researcher not involved in the study, is developing one-centimeter-square sensor chips that could someday help soldiers detect chemical hazards on the battlefield. The sensors, which could fit in a wristwatch, are basically micro-laboratories that analyze particles in the air.
Bashir said his work shows that the technology described in the study is not far-fetched.
"I think most of these things are in the 5- to 10-year time frame," Bashir said. "Many are in the idea stages, but others have already proven their feasibility."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.