U.S. military seeks revolution in biological engineering

By Stuart Fox, InnovationNewsDaily Assistant Editor DARPA, the U.S. military’s advanced research wing, has had it with the pace and expense of biological engineering. Currently, developing something as simple as a bacterium that makes biofuels can take the better part…

By Stuart Fox, InnovationNewsDaily Assistant Editor

DARPA, the U.S. military’s advanced research wing, has had it with the pace and expense of biological engineering.

Currently, developing something as simple as a bacterium that makes biofuels can take the better part of a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. With its newest solicitation for its Living Foundries program, DARPA has put out a call for a new suite of tools that would alter genetic code as easily as computer software or mass-print DNA networks, all at a tenth the current time and orders of magnitude more cheaply than currently possible.

In the solicitation posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, DARPA introduces the first phase of the Living Foundries synthetic biology project: the Advanced Tools and Capabilities for Generalizable platforms (or “ATGC,” as in the DNA code). The ATGC solicitation sets the bar pretty high, demanding new technologies that will allow biological engineering to more closely resemble mechanical engineering processes, such as the VLSI advance that enabled the microprocessor-fueled computer revolution of the late 1970s.

Oh, and they want the first ideas submitted within 30 months.

“These advancements should enable the ability to rapidly design and build new systems to create novel capabilities and to address complex challenges that today have no or few solutions,” reads the solicitation. “Successful proposals will consist of a multidisciplinary team with expertise both inside and outside of the biological sciences and will ensure a tight coupling between any proposed design tool development and experimental work. Again, DARPA is only interested in proposals that will result in transformative advances in our ability to engineer biology.”

What exactly qualifies as “transformative” to the organization best known for developing stealth technology and the Internet? The solicitation includes some examples. The ATGC program wants modular genetic parts for directed evolution and the assembly of new life forms, self-contained platforms that can test entire genomes in bulk, and even new building blocks for synthetic life beyond the nucleotides found in naturally occurring DNA. The program also wants these tools to cost 100 times less than current methods, take less than two days, and reduce error rates to nearly zero.

In sum, DARPA wants a set of tools that can construct an entirely artificial, novel form of life for $200,000 and in a week’s time. Currently, it takes years and $20 million to do the same thing.

DARPA must be under no illusions that many of the businesses that respond to this solicitation will fall short of their history-altering goal. Still, any advances in this field may eventually prove useful, and DARPA has a history of making the impossible the possible.