DARPA Uses Biology for Defense Purposes


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Although the U.S. military has already deployed the power of biology and nature before, e.g. the Navy trains dolphins to detect underwater mines, the Army Research Office studies life sciences to find new ways to better soldier protection and performance. In recent years, the military—mostly under the umbrella of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) —has created a new suite of programs that take a very different approach to harnessing the power of nature: synthetic biology.

Among other initiatives, researchers at DARPA are attempting to engineer insects to deliver protective genes to plants; to transform bacteria and yeast into factories to produce on-demand chemicals and fuels, and to develop methods to reverse any threats posed by gene drives.

According to slate.com, many of these projects are strictly for defense, rather than offense, but given the size of the budgets here, the U.S. military investment makes up a rather large portion of the money in synthetic biology research. It’s possible, then, that DARPA’s work is bending the entire field of synthetic biology toward military applications.

Between 2008 and 2014, the federal government poured approximately $819 million into synbio research. Since 2012, the majority of that funding came not from the budgets of civilian organizations like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, but from DARPA and other Defense Department initiatives. DARPA created at least five programs, most of which are now housed at its Biological Technologies Office.

Why is DARPA making investments in synthetic biology? DARPA clearly states that the existing initiatives focus on countering biological threats (be it from nation-states, rogue actors, or possibly “mistakes” from other scientific research)

At first, DARPA focused on developing organisms that can create materials, fuel, and other chemical compounds. In subsequent years, the organization began taking a slightly different path. First, it added Biological Robustness in Complex Settings, and also created Safe Genes, which focuses on creating gene drives—a technology that promotes inheritance of specific traits in a species that can be safely introduced or combatted in the environment. (For example, researchers are looking into creating gene drives that will make it impossible for mosquitoes to spread certain diseases.) Then there’s the Insect Allies program, which aims to use advanced biotechnologies to engineer insects that can help protect crops.

In late 2016, DARPA issued a call-out for academics to submit grant proposals to develop ecological niche-preference engineering technologies, which would “enable the genetic engineering of an organism’s preference for a niche (e.g., temperature, range, food source, and habitat)” in order to lessen their “economic, health, and resource burdens.”

If the U.S. is able to engineer an insect to carry a virus for protective purposes, it wouldn’t be hard to engineer that same insect to carry a deadly virus for offensive ones. It’s a classic dual-use technology scenario, it is claimed in the slate.com article.