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    DARPA's New Biotech Unit Will Try to Create New Life Forms

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    Artist concept of the inside of a cell. Image: DARPA

    Ye sci-fi writers hard up for new material should spend an hour or so perusing the Defense Department's 2015 budget proposal, especially the section covering the far-out research projects underway at DARPA, where the agency's mad scientists are working to develop brain-controlled drones, biowarfare, engineer new life forms, and possibly attempt immortality.

    If last year was the year of battlefield robots, cyborg soldiers, and weaponized drones, it looks like the next couple years will see the Pentagon gearing up for a deep dive into biotech. DARPA announced today it now has an unit devoted to studying the intersection of biology and engineering, the Biological Technologies Office

    The agency is betting that the next generation of defense tech will be take a cue from natural life, and as such one of the major focuses of the new unit will be on synthetic biology. It'll ramp up research into manufacturing biomaterials, turning living cells, proteins, and DNA into a sort of genetic factory. 

    The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on. It's not a new initiative; DARPA announced its Living Foundries synthetic biology program three years ago to transform modern-day manufacturing. Now the 2015 budget will bump the program's funding up from $18 to $28 million.

    The even more WTF future potential of synthetic biology is engineering synthetic life—eventually creating entirely new, artificially made life forms. It's not totally far-fetched. Just last week researchers manipulated DNA to engineer the first synthetic, custom "designer" chromosome, "designed on a computer and made from scratch in a laboratory," as the Economist explained it. It's being heralded as the first step toward a man-made artificial organism. 

    Naturally, this is something DARPA's interested in exploring. In 2010, the agency announced its "BioDesign" program would study how to create synthetic beings genetically engineered to be immortal and programmed with a kill switch that can be flicked at any moment to turn the future-beings "off." 

    It makes you think: Why bother with mechanical robots when you can engineer fake humans replicants to fight your battles? We haven't heard much about the Pentagon's would-be synthetic soldiers since then, but the BioDesign program got a bump from $11.4 to $19.3 million in next year's budget. It described the research like so:

    BioDesign will employ system engineering methods in combination with biotechnology and synthetic chemical technology to create novel beneficial attributes. BioDesign mitigates the unpredictability of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect. This thrust area includes designed molecular responses that increase resistance to cellular death signals and improved computational methods for prediction of function based solely on sequence and structure of proteins produced by synthetic biological systems.

    Beyond engineering new living materials and living organisms, the biotech unit will bring the agency's longstanding research into neuroscience, epidemiology, disease, prosthetics, and other life sciences under one roof, to start pushing for results. "We are ready to start turning the resulting knowledge into practical tools and capabilities,’” Geoff Ling, the office's first director said in a press release today.

    They'll be working on some seriously futuristic stuff, even by DARPA's standards. 

    Genetics, prosthetics, and outbreaks—oh my. Image: DARPA Biological Technologies Office

    The unit will continue research into mind-controlled limbs, and better merging the human brain with cybernetic body parts. Already prosthetics directly connected to the nervous system can be controlled by brain waves signaling nearby healthy muscles. Connecting robotic limbs directly to the brain is next on the list. 

    The agency tested this out in human trails about a year ago—quadriplegic volunteers had chips implanted in the skull that could pick up on neural signals that control motor functions and harness them to control top-notch robotic arms. "In a sense we've opened a door—a connection between the human brain and the rest of the world," DARPA director Arati Prabhakar told NPR's Marketplace in an interview today. "You can let your imagination go wild about were that's going to take us."

    Next, researchers are working on making the signal go both ways, so patients can not only control the prosthetic with their mind, but when the device moves it sends signals back to the nervous system to trigger the sensation of physical touch.

    Further into the future, these "neurally enabled human-machine interface technologies," to use the technical parlance, could eventually be applied to developing brain-controlled robots and UAVs. Scientists are currently working on controlling small consumer robots and commercial quadcopters with thoughts, why not a military drone someday?

    According to today's announcement, the Biological Technologies Office will also tackle better artificial intelligence for machines on the battlefield, better therapies for memory loss and other brain functions, and biological warfare defense like disease detectors, vaccines for viruses, and understanding the spread of outbreaks.

    Sci-fi writers, eat your hearts out.

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