DARPA Attempting to Create New Lifeforms

Megan Neal
April 3, 2014


Ye sci-fi writers hard up for new material should spend an hour or so perusing the Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal, especially the section covering the far-out research projects underway at DARPA, where the agency’s mad scientists are working to develop brain-controlled drones, biowarfare, engineer new life forms, and possibly attempt immortality.

If last year was the year of battlefield robots, cyborg soldiers, and weaponized drones, it looks like the next couple years will see the Pentagon gearing up for a deep dive into biotech. DARPA announced today it now has an unit devoted to studying the intersection of biology and engineering, the Biological Technologies Office.

The agency is betting that the next generation of defense tech will be take a cue from natural life, and as such one of the major focuses of the new unit will be on synthetic biology. It’ll ramp up research into manufacturing biomaterials, turning living cells, proteins, and DNA into a sort of genetic factory.

The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on. It’s not a new initiative; DARPA announced its Living Foundries synthetic biology program three years ago to transform modern-day manufacturing. Now the 2015 budget will bump the program’s funding up from $18 to $28 million.

The even morhttp://healthydebates.com/darpa-trying-create-new-life-forms-attempt-immortality/e WTF future potential of synthetic biology is engineering synthetic life—eventually creating entirely new, artificially made life forms. It’s not totally far-fetched. Just last week researchers manipulated DNA to engineer the first synthetic, custom “designer” chromosome, “designed on a computer and made from scratch in a laboratory,” as the Economist explained it. It’s being heralded as the first step toward a man-made artificial organism.

Naturally, this is something DARPA’s interested in exploring. In 2010, the agency announced its “BioDesign” program would study how to create synthetic beings genetically engineered to be immortal and programmed with a kill switch that can be flicked at any moment to turn the future-beings “off.”

It makes you think: Why bother with mechanical robots when you can engineer fake humans replicants to fight your battles? We haven’t heard much about the Pentagon’s would-be synthetic soldiers since then, but the BioDesign program got a bump from $11.4 to $19.3 million in next year’s budget. It described the research like so:

BioDesign will employ system engineering methods in combination with biotechnology and synthetic chemical technology to create novel beneficial attributes. BioDesign mitigates the unpredictability of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect. This thrust area includes designed molecular responses that increase resistance to cellular death signals and improved computational methods for prediction of function based solely on sequence and structure of proteins produced by synthetic biological systems.

Beyond engineering new living materials and living organisms, the biotech unit will bring the agency’s longstanding research into neuroscience, epidemiology, disease, prosthetics, and other life sciences under one roof, to start pushing for results. “We are ready to start turning the resulting knowledge into practical tools and capabilities,’” Geoff Ling, the office’s first director said in a press release today.

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