The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's $2.9 billion technology research arm, plans to invest heavily in "synthetic biology" — a field focused on creating man-made life which is widely seen as a future source of drugs, materials, and biofuels.
Foreseeing brain implants, bionic limbs, and more Ebola-like outbreaks, DARPA says that biology "is rich in potential breakthroughs" for the military and national security, according to a report published on Thursday. A decade ago, physics and computer science dominated its efforts. Now more than than $300 million of the agency's budget goes toward biological projects — a number that is expected to grow.
"We think there are very potent opportunities to harness biology as a technology," said DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar at a briefing last week on the new report.
Best known for its high-risk, decades-long projects — such as stealth airplanes, laser-guided bombs, and the internet (originally ARPANET, launched in 1969) — DARPA opened a biological technologies office last year. Prabhakar said that now, about 1 in 10 of its projects are biological. In 2013, for example, DARPA launched a $110 million project to create 1,000 novel molecules, putting its biology efforts on the radar of biotechnology firms.
But the military support for cutting-edge biological research comes just as scientists call for a moratorium on genetic editing of human DNA. The scientific community is also still reeling from years of related disputes over engineered flu viruses and federal investigations of biologists for sloppy handling of "select agents" — bugs such as anthrax and plague.
Last year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) required screening studies on certain infections that have "dual use" risks, in which research aimed at preventing a disease also reveals how to spread it. The OSTP is weighing even tighter rules for fatal disease bugs, such as SARS and MERS, as well as regulations for genetically engineered microbes.
"We often stumble into vast societal questions about new technologies," Prabhakar said at the briefing. But, she added, "we cannot shy away" from technology with military potential. For example, the technologies could help thwart politically destabilizing diseases in Africa, and defend against attacks from bioweapons, Prabhakar said.
For advice on the ethical issues raised by its biotechnology efforts, DARPA relies on an expert panel of academic bioethicists and infectious disease experts.
"I think the fact that they proactively set up an external panel as a sounding board indicates that DARPA knew from the beginning that their work on synthetic biology could be controversial," one of the panelists, David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., told BuzzFeed News by email.
"Many people will reject it, no matter how it is portrayed," he added. "If it is connected with the military, the chances of suspicion, fear, and public push back are even higher."
But concerns about DARPA's biology push are more subtle than cartoonish fears of a "biobomb" created by a military lab, said biosecurity expert Edward Hammond of Prickly Research in Austin.
"What they are really talking about is field releases of this technology by a very powerful organization, taking it completely out of the lab," he said. "That is worth asking questions about."
DARPA’s biology office supports 26 programs, ranging from bionics to man-made microbes.
Others include virus outbreak forecasting and teaching soldiers "the science of human interactions," how to meet and greet people from different cultures. On the cutting edge, a "Living Foundries" program aims to industrialize lab-based genetic engineering and make more robust "engineered organisms."
During a presentation in San Francisco in February, Alicia Jackson, the deputy director for DARPA's biological program, said biology can do things "that no other technology can come close to doing."
"It can replicate itself, it can adapt, it can evolve," she said. "It can scale from one to millions, to billions, effortlessly in a day."
Jackson closed the talk by suggesting something even more out of this world — creating genetically engineered microbes that might someday transform Mars and other planets into livable habitats. The suggestion put DARPA completely at odds with decades of "planetary protection" rules at NASA, which purposely sterilizes its interplanetary landers to prevent earthly microbes from colonizing Mars by accident.
The expectations of Prabhakar, DARPA's director, are more prosaic. At last week's briefing she said that she expects synthetic biology to produce "better materials" by borrowing tricks from nature. Spider silk, for example, is stronger than steel, and abalone shells are tougher than glass and more flexible than plastic. More powerful fuels might also come from genetically engineered microbes, Prabhakar said.
In 2010, DARPA asked the National Academy of Sciences how to handle the ethics of synthetic biology, robot weapons, and bionic soldiers.
The academy's report, released last year, called for regularly screening technologies for unintended dangerous consequences and updating the public.
One of the report's authors, bioethicist Jonathan Moreno of the University of Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News that he didn't see a lot of evidence for DARPA taking that advice in at least one of its biology programs, called "Narrative Networks," which seeks to use neuroscience to find out why people believe stories.
"One can infer that the goal is to do propaganda better," Moreno said. "It's imperative that DARPA assess the consequences of its research."
Similarly, Hammond called for caution in DARPA quickly engineering vaccines in outbreaks. He pointed to the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people, which were later traced by FBI investigators to a vaccine researcher, Bruce Ivins, with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Jackson, who started DARPA's biology office, "regularly" discusses legal and ethical issues with its four advisors, agency spokesperson Jared Adams told BuzzFeed News by email.
"We are not looking for them to come to some sort of consensus for us or produce a report," he said. "They are more advisors offering counsel."
No matter how strong these public assurances, synthetic biology makes people nervous, said Rejeski, the DARPA advisor.
"So they are going to have to be painfully transparent, a characteristic that is not easy for DARPA, in part, because their work has been under hyper scrutiny from the press for decades," he said.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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