Monday, October 12, 2015 by: J. D. Heyes
The Washington Post reports that public sector agencies and private sector investors are putting millions into the development of synthetic biology, which is leading to a rash of new innovations that are having an impact on agriculture, energy and health, among other sectors.
Citing the latest “U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding” report from the Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project in the nation’s capital, The Washington Postnoted that the U.S. government has funded north of $820 million in research programs focused on synthetic biological development programs between 2008 and 2014.
The Washington Post further reported:
In the public sector, the role of innovation giant DARPA in funding synthetic biology projects has exploded, eclipsing the role of other prominent U.S. government agencies that fund synthetic biology programs, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the USDA. In 2014 alone, DARPA funded $100 million in programs, more than three times the amount funded by the NSF, marking a fast ramp-up from a level of zero in 2010.
Worrisome military applications?
Because DARPA has been involved in the development of a number of scientific firsts, it’s worth keeping an eye on the defense research agency regarding its work in the field of synthetic biology, the paper noted. Through initiatives such as DARPA’s Living Foundriesprogram, the agency is attempting to create or facilitate the creation of an actual manufacturing platform for living organisms. To this end, DARPA awarded the Broad Institute Foundry, an MIT synthetic research lab, $32 million to figure out how to design and then manufacture DNA.
“Living Foundries seeks to transform biology into an engineering practice by developing the tools, technologies, methodologies, and infrastructure to speed the biological design-built-test-learn cycle and expand the complexity of systems that can be engineered,” says the Living Foundries web page. “The tools and infrastructure developed as part of this program are expected to enable the rapid and scalable development of transformative products and systems that are currently too complex to access.”
DARPA now represents nearly 60 percent of all public funding in the field of synthetic biology, Todd Kuiken, the senior program researcher at the Wilson Center who authored the trends report, told the Post. When all of the Department of Defense spending is added in, he said, about two-thirds of all synthetic biology funding from Uncle Sam is slanted toward the defense sector.
But to what end? That’s the worrying part when you begin to consider the implications and prospects of utilizing synthetic organisms and the potential to perhaps create a biological apocalypse in nations that are not friendly to the U.S.
As the Post notes, a number of Pentagon programs are classified and hard-and-fast figures are difficult to get, so there really is no way to know exactly what the military might be working on at this moment in this field.
Society relies on many products
Kuiken told the Post that a number of military programs appear to focus on dual-use technologies such as bacteria that are able to get rid of the barnacles attached to the bottom of U.S. Navy warships. One Army program is aimed at developing “biologically-inspired power generation,” and that could have major applications in the consumer sector as long as people are okay with powering devices using biological, living organisms rather than traditional batteries.
MIT biological engineering professor Christopher Voigt, who started the institution’s foundry, says the research is vital to the development of a myriad of products and treatments.
“Society relies on many products from the natural world that have intricate material and chemical structures, from chemicals such as antibiotics to materials like wood,” Voigt said, according to a statement on the MIT foundry’s web site.
“We’ve been limited in our ability to program living cells to redesign these products — for example, to program living cells to create materials as intricate as wood or seashells — but with new properties,” he continued. “Rather, products from synthetic biology have been limited to small, simple organic molecules. I want to change the scale of genetic engineering to access anything biology can do.”