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DARPA Budget Funds Synthetic Life

Anyone out there never heard of DARPA?

No they’re not those guides for people climbing Mt. Everest.

Defense Advance Research Projects Agency…That’s the mad-science wing of the US Dept of defense.

They fund innovative research whether its through govt labs. the private sector, academia etc. They came up with ARPANET, the predecessor of the internet, you may have heard of that.

Every now and then I hear about some of the more out-there research they want to fund that sounds real gee-whizz cool or bad sci-fi movie crazy. Sometimes it’s both.

Part of their budget for 2011 was recently released revealing 6 million US dollars for a project that piqued my interest called BioDesign.

BioDesign is described in their budget report as:

“…a new intellectual approach to biological functionality. The intrinsic concept is that by using gained knowledge of biological processes in combination with biotechnology and synthetic chemical technology, humans can employ system engineering methods to originate novel beneficial processes”

It seems then that DARPA wants to do research on and ultimately create synthetic organisms to accomplish a host of possible tasks.

By synthetic organism, they don’t mean some sort of gooey super soldier which some people seem to think.  I believe they’re talking about bacteria that have been modified genetically to some degree to have new highly beneficial capabilities. This would probably lead to fully synthetic micro-organisms with genomes built from scratch.

We may be closer to this ability than you realize considering researchers are already creating artificial chromosomes and ribosomes and have even transferred entire genomes from one microbe to another.

Some of the more eye-opening attributes of these anticipated DARPA organisms include:

-A genetically encoded kill-switch should something go wrong like a mutation or if they get mad at us.

-A self-destruct option that’s activated “upon nefarious removal of organism.” I guess this means it dies if you try to remove it from underneath your fingernail or whatever its intended habitat is.

-Use of the genome to track the history of the organism and how it was used.

-“…Strategies that would enable a new generation of regenerative cells that could ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely until needed for an injury repair or therapeutic application.”

Some are interpreting this last one as creating immortal killer organisms. I don’t interpret it that way. It seems to me they’re talking about some kind of potent healing salve that never goes bad. Perfect for astronauts in deep-space, soldiers on the battlefield, or people holed-up in their basement 5 years after the zombie apocalypse.

Many news outlets mentioned one specific quote in the budget. Actually, it seems that everyone based their article on what a Wired article reported on this. Perhaps Wired hit the news cycle first.

The quote is this:
“BioDesign eliminates the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement …”

The Wired online article printed a quote from NYU biology professor David Fitch.

“Evolution by selection is not a random process at all, and is actually a hugely efficient design algorithm used extensively in computation and engineering,”

This is true. Natural selection isn’t random. Individuals pass on their genes based on how well they function in their specific environment. Nothing random about that part.

But look at the whole quote now:

“BioDesign eliminates the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect”

They’re talking about controlling what IS random about evolution, namely whatever caused the mutation whether it was a cosmic ray hitting a germ-line cell nucleus or just a copy error. They’re proposing the ability to come up with a biological function first and then figuring out what the genome would need to look like to accomplish that specific goal (fiendishly complex as that is).

I understand that when a military agency talks about research in synthetic organisms that can live a real long time it’s impossible not to think of all those science fiction movies where research goes horribly wrong and brain eating monsters from the id are unleashed on the world.

The potential uses of this technology though deserve more than just a wave of the hand. This technology could offer us tools to make biofuels, remove toxic waste from the environment, and sequester carbon…and that’s just barely scratching the surface. It’s like saying that controlling electrons might be good for radios and batteries one day.

I think that a lot of the research in this DARPA report makes sense when you consider the world we could easily find ourselves in in 10 or 20 years. This technology is going to be needed in a world with bio-hackers and terrorists who can whip up a H10N10 virus in their basement in one evening.

This technology is obviously a double-edged sword of epic proportions like nanotech or even nuclear energy. The good that can come from is great but the downside gives new meaning to “EPIC FAIL”.

Like so many of the transformative technologies that are coming however, there’s literally no way benign way to stop research in them. For every country that bans it there’s 5 countries that will try to capitalize on it because the toolset it gives us is just too compelling to resist.

I, for one, am glad that DARPA is taking this seriously. It’s a risky technology for sure but it could not only help feed, clean, and heal the world but it can also come to our aid when another country seeks to use that same technology to deprive, contaminate, or sicken that world.

2 comments to DARPA Budget Funds Synthetic Life

  • emerson7

    “A genetically encoded kill-switch should something go wrong.” that’s the only thing that scares the hell out of me. what if it’s the kill-switch that goes wrong?

  • Hey, Bob. Good post, as usual. I’m wondering how easy it would be to design the genetic kill-switch so that the same gene or gene-set also governs a highly-conserved trait, so that if the kill-switch mutates, it will disable or kill the organism? Just a thought, and it would probably be a safer bet should someone try to ‘hack’ into its genome by retrovirus or non-bio-nanotech.

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