In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite ever, beating the US. The US public was shocked. We’re America, damn it! For all of our technological strength, how could we be beaten by the Soviets? President Eisenhower responded to the public outcry by creating ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency). ARPA’s goal was to push the boundaries of technology so our enemies would never surprise us again. As a result, ARPA-funded research was high risk, but also high gain.
In its over 50-year history, ARPA (now called DARPA, the D is for Defense) has been instrumental in planting the seeds for a significant number of transformative technologies. For example, we would be lost without their development of GPS. They had a hand in developing the first computer mouse. And most importantly, the holiest of holy, the Internet, was born partly from the ARPA-NET and TCP/IP specifications funded by DARPA.
Today, DARPA is still at it. With a strong background in engineering and computer science, DARPA sets ambitious goals for technologists to reach. You may have seen the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge, the Boston Dynamics robot animals, and most impressively, mind-control prosthetic arms. (I highly encourage you to watch the video of it below).
Makin’ it rain
Just last year, DARPA officially began its foray into biology by opening its Biological Technologies Office (BTO). The BTO is DARPA’s “technology arm focused on leveraging advances in engineering and information sciences to drive and reshape biotechnology for technological advantage.” In an interview last year in Nature Medicine with the BTO’s Director Col. Geoffrey Ling (who also holds an MD/PhD), Ling explained why the BTO had only just been formed. “The technology side of things [has] now advanced to the point that we are able to make meaningful contributions to the study of biology as a means to developing our capabilities.” Those contributions being “things: things that fly, things that swim,” as opposed to just novel insights into biological function.
DARPA’s budget is only about $3 billion, compared to the NIH’s $30 billion. But projects that do get funded hit the jackpot. “Instead of having a hundred $100,000 efforts, we have one big $10 million effort, and we want a product that comes out of that.” Typically, this huge bolus of cash can only be used for two to four years. This is in stark contrast to the typical R01 (the common “big” NIH grant), which is usually $450,000 over five years. However, DARPA's sword double-edged. Underperforming projects can and will get cut, with unspent funds going back to DARPA.
Pushing biological technology forward
So if DARPA cuts your lab an enormous check, what exactly do they want to see from you?
The full list of BTO programs can be found here, including the prosthetics project above. A common theme among many of the programs is to provide biologically inspired or relevant defense for warfighters. For example, the Wyss Institute at Harvard has just received $4.7 million to design engineered probiotics that can detect and alleviate acute gastrointestinal illness that often comes with traveling. It is quite obvious to see how soldiers would benefit from this in battle situations, but the research—if successful—would invariably have huge ramifications for the health industry, not only for travel but also for treating gastrointestinal disorders.
The BTO is also looking to predict how viruses will evolve and to design vaccines and drugs against them ahead of time, thereby enabling a near instantaneous response to unpredictable outbreaks. In addition to a great defense, the BTO wants to fund a strong offense. Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus and Micavibrio aeruginosavorus, which are actual bacterial species and not just a finger spasm I had while typing, are known microbes that prey on gram-negative bacteria, including multi-drug resistant human pathogens. The BTO wants to engineer these sorts of predators to combat microbes without harming us, the hosts.
Not ambitious enough for you? Why not try to create viable ways to thwart our oil dependency? The BTO (and a number of synthetic biology labs and companies) want to engineer microbes to produce the base molecules that we would normally derive from crude oil. The BTO’s Living Foundries program wants scientists to create the technology to produce significant quantities of 1000 unique molecules from microorganisms in the next few years. This is no easy task. It took 12 years and large teams of scientists for the first microbe-derived drug to be produced. However, if Living Foundries is successful, the implications are huge. These 1000 molecules, normally derived from crude oil, can be used for to make fuels, plastics, and even explosives.
Are “green” explosives ethical?
If the idea of the Department of Defense using biological technology for the advance of military purposes makes you uneasy, you’re not alone. In an interview with Nature News, synthetic biologist Eric Klavins of the University of Washington in Seattle said, “I can’t look my kids in the eyes and tell them my ideas are being tossed around by generals. I’d rather they were thrown around by doctors or global-health researchers.” Many scientists who agree with Klavins choose not to apply for DARPA funding.
However, scientists who see the benefit of DARPA’s interest in biological technologies argue that advancing synthetic biology, even for the defense purposes, has merit. For example, manufacturing of explosives involves significant amounts of heavy metals, making it dangerous to the employees who make them. DARPA-funded synthetic biology would transform manufacturing, making it greener and safer to produce. Andrew Ellington of UT Austin argues that the military is always going to make explosives, so they might as well make them safer and more environmentally friendly to manufacture.
Furthermore, the majority of the biological technologies being pursued by DARPA are for defense, not offense (e.g. biological weapons and explosives). Many of the projects would have benefits for civilians of all nationalities, such as the Restoring Active Memory program which aims to combat memory loss that stems from traumatic brain injury with a “wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device.”
For Col. Ling, the BTO’s purpose is simple: “I serve the service member. I make no bones about it. These are the young men and women who have chosen to be the defenders of our society.”