Military researchers eye sensors based on microbes to monitor the environment for new and emerging threats

April 25, 2023
Microbe-based sensors work will include tailoring of input stimuli and output signals, biologically encoded signal processing, and response times.

ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking industry to develop agile, reliable sensors for environmental monitoring that capitalize on microbes -- tiny living things that are too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., released a broad agency announcement on Friday (HR001123S0027) for the Tellus project, which seeks to develop microbe-based sensors to monitor for existing and emerging threats, pollutants, or changing conditions.

Tellus seeks to establish the range of chemical and physical stimuli that microbial sensors can detect, environmental conditions they can tolerate, options for biologically encoded information processing, types of output signals that can be generated, and theoretical stand-off or remote distances at which these signals could be detected.

Tellus will explore the rapid and modular design of microbe-based sensing systems to include tailoring of input stimuli and output signals, biologically encoded signal processing, and response times.

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These microbial devices must be able to transduce detected stimuli into output signals like photons, colorimetric changes, chemicals, electric current, and mechanical actuation that are measurable by optoelectronic, photonic, imaging, and electrode receiver devices.

Classes of stimuli will include chemical and physical, with emphasis on sensors that work across many different environments and conditions. DARPA particularly is interested in microbial sensing systems able to detect stimuli and relay output signals at a distance and can operate unattended for long durations.

Current approaches to environmental monitoring rely on distributed sensor nodes on the ground, in the water, aboard unmanned aircraft, or on orbiting satellites. Researchers want to enable more rapid development of sensors for new threats, increase spatial resolution and confidence, and reduce power and logistical burdens.

Microbe-based sensors should user-friendly, compact, able to detect several threats, provide simple yes-or-no responses, and be compatible with many types of stand-off and remote sensors. Microbial sensors have been demonstrated for analytes such as heavy metals, organic pollutants, energetic compounds, chemical warfare agents, and gases, with sensitivities comparable to conventional sensors.

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Microbes are able to detect and discriminate between several target chemicals as well as respond to distinct physical stimuli like ultraviolet to near-infrared light, electrical potential, low frequency ultrasound, magnetic fields, temperature changes, and RF and microwave signals.

Microbial devices may offer endurance benefits over non-biological devices by harvesting energy to self-power and are readily sustained via encapsulation or within simple microfluidic systems.

Tellus is a 2.5-year, single-phase program focused on developing ways to enable rapid design, building, and testing of microbial sense-and-respond devices for environmental monitoring.

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DARPA will sponsor a virtual proposers day from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesday 2 May 2023. Register for the proposer's day briefings no later than Wednesday 26 April 2023 online at

Companies interested should upload abstracts no later than 18 May 2023 and full proposals by 6 July 2023 to the DARPA BAA website at

Email questions or concerns to DARPA at [email protected].More information is online at

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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