Home » Policy & public » “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” — Meet Alexander Titus, The Department Of Defense’s Head Of Biotechnology

“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” — Meet Alexander Titus, The Department Of Defense’s Head Of Biotechnology

What keeps you up at night?, I ask.

“Being left behind. And the reason is that when you start to slow down, you lose grasp on what is cutting edge and what is coming around the corner,” Dr. Alexander Titus replies. “It is the Department’s responsibility to understand what the threats are to the United States,”

Dr. Titus is the new Assistant Director for Biotechnology in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides the military forces needed to deter war and ensure the United States’ security. The US military is currently undergoing a modernization initiative. Dr. Titus leads biotechnology modernization, one of several new priorities within the DoD’s research program. His job: develop a ten-year roadmap to keep the nation’s defenses at the leading edge of biotechnology and specifically synthetic biology: the process of making biology easier to engineer.

Dr. Alexander Titus is currently the Assistant Director (AD) for Biotechnology within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & EngineeringUS Department of Defense

For some, hearing the words ‘defense’ and ‘biotechnology’ used in the same sentence triggers a sense of unease at the thought of the DoD developing biological weapons. But the US military isn’t developing bioweapons, and nor does it want to. In fact it’s a signatory to a number of important international treaties to make sure that nobody develops them. But the military must anticipate how to respond to other actors with mal intent to use this technology.

Dr. Titus has a two-pronged approach. Using biotechnology to make sure the military has the capability to defend against an unwanted attack, but he also envisions a completely new relationship with biology, one where the military’s technology stack is upgraded – where synthetic biology, and other tools that allow reading, writing and editing of DNA, are providing a number of solutions to a range of unmet needs from food, fuel, materials and more:

“We see the potential in all of the future benefits that synthetic biology is going to provide to the Department, the United States, and the global economy,” Dr. Titus explains. “the United States is a leader in this technology”.

Imagine living camouflage like a chameleon, a biological engine fueled by sunlight, or self healing armour, or a nightlight powered by the same chemistry that powers a firefly (actually this already exists!).  These may sound like science fiction right now, but if biology becomes fully engineerable then they may not be science fiction in the future.

Dr. Titus imagines living, growing structures in the future of synthetic biology. “I really am enthralled with the ability to grow living structures,” Dr. Titus says. “If you could engineer an organism to have a naturally occurring structure that is a house or a building, or even a car, and then you add some mechanical applications to it. That’s really what I’m excited about” he adds.


In 2014, David Benjamin used Ecovative myco-bricks to construct Hy-Fi, a curving, tower-like structure commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art. At the end of its lifespan, the installation was fully composted for use in local community gardens. This cycle of growth, reuse, and regrowth perfectly exemplifies the circular bio-economy of the future. Certified Energy

“The way that we look at synthetic biology is through the ability to manufacture with a whole new type of technology,” Dr. Titus says. Synthetic biology can help improve the ability to manufacture chemicals in a new way, that is more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective.

“The reason we modernize is to make sure that our warfighters have the safest, most secure and effective equipment to carry out their mission” Dr. Titus explains. With bioengineered spider silk and other new materials, it is easy to imagine synthetic biology’s use to improve warfighters’ clothing and vehicles.

Synthetic biology can help improve the ability to manufacture chemicals in a new way, that is more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective. – Dr. Alexander Titus

With much of synthetic biology’s advancement happening in the start-up environment and in industry, Dr. Titus, a former McKinsey management consultant is used to working with technology startups and explains that the Defense Department needs to be engaging with biotech startups and the synthetic biology industry. In the coming weeks, the Department will release a request for information on ways to partner better with the private sector in the synthetic biology space.

“The possibilities are endless for what we can use. And that’s why it’s such an important technology to us,” he adds.  

Thank you to Stephanie Michelsen for additional research and reporting in this post.

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Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/09/24/with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility–meet-alexander-titus-the-department-of-defenses-head-of-biotechnology/


John Cumbers

John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta. John is passionate about education and on the use and adoption of biological technologies. He has received multiple awards and grants from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for his work in the field. John has been involved in multiple startups such as those producing food for space, microbes to extract lunar and martian resources, and hoverboards! John is an active investor through the DCVC SynBioBeta Fund and his synthetic biology syndicate on AngelList.

Stephanie Michelsen

Stephanie Michelsen is pursuing her M.Sc. in Biotechnology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She recently got accepted as an International Innovation Program (2ip) fellow, a program designed to connect Danish life science students with the biotech start-up industry in the Bay Area. She is therefore currently living in the San Francisco Sunset district with four other Danish students learning about biotech entrepreneurship. As a 2ip fellow and as a writer and editor for SynBioBeta she is fortunate enough to further explore her interest in the many possibilities of synthetic biology.

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