Pentagon’s New Factory: Your DNA

Posted: June 14, 2011 in Science and Technology

Lena Groeger
June 14, 2011

Darpa is sick and tired of waiting around for Mother Nature. Instead, it wants to take the life-making business into its own hands — and manufacture new biological forms in a factory of mix-and-match bio-bits.

A recent call for research by the Pentagon’s mad science agency proposes a new program called “Living Foundries.” The idea is to use biology as a manufacturing platform to “enable on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities.”

In other words, let’s engineer life to make stuff we want.

The fields of bioengineering and synthetic biology have already produced some useful, scary and flat-out bizarre entities. Besides renewable petroleum or steel strong spider silk, there are all sorts of potential therapeutic, industrial and agricultural purposes for reorganized DNA.

But Darpa thinks progress is too slow. Previous projects (it calls them “primitive”) are ad hoc and labor intensive, chugging along by trial and error in secretive silos. Hence we are “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.”

To jumpstart the process, Darpa wants to open the playing field to people from outside the biological sciences, recruiting designers, engineers, manufacturers, computer scientists, academics and anyone else who has an idea. By democratizing the biological design and manufacturing process, they hope to speed up the development of a reliable factory for all sorts of kind-of-living things.

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