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Katherine Bourzac

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DARPA Wants Artificial Lifeforms

The agency will fund projects aimed at speeding up synthetic biology, and creating new kinds of materials.

  • June 16, 2011

Yesterday morning, at the Fifth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology at Stanford University, a representative from the DARPA announced a new program called Living Foundries that will invest in and develop synthetic biology projects.

The goal, according to the agency’s program manager Alicia Jackson, is to revolutionize materials science, and to foster projects that will enable the creation and manufacture of materials that are not possible to make today, such as more efficient solar and electronic materials. To do so, she said, DARPA will get into synthetic biology “in a big way.” The goal is to establish new manufacturing capabilities in the United States.

Synthetic biologists try to systematically reengineer cells to do something useful, such as make biofuels. People in the field have great dreams of designing probiotic microbes to kill cancer cells, or remediate the effects of climate change, or make transportation fuels from abundant biomass. And synthetic biologists have made great strides; last year, for example, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had made a living “synthetic cell” by editing a genome on the computer, building it in a lab, and transplanting it into a cell of another species. But still, the amount of time it takes just to get experiments going is a major brake on creativity, and practical results of this research have come slowly.

“We take sugar, feed it to cells, and make a product—a pharmaceutical, a chemical, a fuel,” said Jackson. But in reality, she said, yields are low, synthetic biologists can only use a very constrained group of starting products, and they can’t make anything they want, only things that are either natural products or slightly modified versions.

Expanding the possible materials that can be made by engineered cells will require making microbes that can deal with other feedstocks—going beyod sugar and cellulose. DARPA wants to open up the periodic table so that cells can make, for example, efficient semiconductor materials.

Synthetic biology today is “expensive and time consuming, and this limits innovation,” said Jackson. “We [at DARPA] are that genie in a bottle that will make the impossible inevitable.”

That’s a tall order indeed, but the energy in the room was high, and the level of ambition of this program is in line with previous DARPA initiatives, one of which played a crucial role in the creation of the Internet.

When asked for further comment after her talk to clarify the funding levels and timelines for this blue-sky project, Jackson said she cannot disclose further details. The program’s first meeting with industry will be on June 28.

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