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DARPA Seeks to Transform Manufacturing With Biology

Synthetic Biology Manufacturing Banner SOURCE: DARPA’s new $30 million project on “engineering biology” seeks to harness the power of biology to transform American manufacturing.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to transform our national manufacturing base “in a big way,” says Alicia Jackson, program manager of DARPA’s Living Foundries program. The new research program will award up to $30 million in competitive contracts to research labs and companies working to put synthetic biology to use in the service of advanced manufacturing.

While DARPA’s best known for its research on technologies with national security applications, the agency has a strong track record of producing innovations with transformative civilian applications as well. From the Internet, to GPS, to driverless cars and robotic limbs, DARPA-initiated research has often made big if not revolutionary splashes in the marketplace. To quote Jackson, “we [at DARPA] are that genie in a bottle that will make the impossible inevitable.”

In the fields of synbio and bioengineering, scientists introduce new genetic information into microorganisms to coax them into producing useful products. These fields have already made significant strides in the production of some pretty incredible chemicals and materials with applications in agriculture, industry, pharmaceuticals, and more. Recent accomplishments include using microorganisms to produce the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, renewable petroleum, steel-strong spider silk, and even whole battery electrodes and solar cells.

Research agencies across the federal government have shown increasing interest in funding synthetic biology research in recent years, including $700 million from the Department of Energy between 2006 and 2010, $40 million from the National Science Foundation in 2010, and at least $48 million from the National Institutes of Health between 2005 and 2010. Even the Department of Agriculture has put $2.3 million into synthetic biology research in recent years. DARPA’s past work in synthetic biology includes modifying the genome of the tobacco plant to produce vaccines as well as a program to engineer immortal microorganisms with genetically-coded kill switches.

Despite increasing attention to synthetic biology in federal agencies and the research community, research is “…limited to producing only a small fraction of the vast number of possible chemicals, materials, and living systems that would be enabled by the ability to truly engineer biology,” says the Living Foundries funding announcement. The Living Foundries program hopes to set itself apart from traditional synbio research projects and transcend the “ad hoc, laborious, trial-and-error” efforts of the past by investing in platform research that can support a broad range of applications, bring down cost, and increase scale. This approach to research on the process of biomanufacturing itself rather than on the production of specific and siloed chemical outputs DARPA dubs “engineering biology.”

DARPA’s vision for engineering biology is ambitious. The Living Foundries project proceeds from the assumption that modular genetic parts can be “mixed and matched on demand” to create a broader array of chemicals and materials more efficiently. This is perhaps conceptually similar to the introduction of interchangeable parts that transformed manufacturing in the late 18th century, except on a genetic level. Lena Groeger of likens the rearrangement of “modular genetic parts” at the core of the Living Foundries’ research to the way that children play with Legos.

Potential grant recipients, including 170 businesses and a number of academic and government research teams, attended a daylong event on June 28 where DARPA advertised its vision and goals for the program. Having received proposals from academic and corporate research groups, DARPA is now taking the next step of determining winners. Once funding decisions are made, DARPA plans to have projects running over the next three years and to see tangible results by the end.

At a time of sluggish economic recovery and stiff international competition, DARPA’s decision to invest in research with broad potential applications in medicine, energy, agriculture, and consumer products as well seems wise. The initial stage has been set, and the next few years will show whether the program’s goals come to fruition. If so, American manufacturing may witness a new milestone.

Gaurav Dhiman is a former intern with the Science Progress team and a rising senior majoring in biology and political science at the University of Miami.

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