DARPA’s BioDesign plan

From Popular Science and Wired, DARPA is budgeting six million dollars on a rather frightening program called “BioDesign” [1]:

BioDesign is a new intellectual approach to biological functionality. The intrinsic concept is that by using gained knowledge of biological processes in combination with biotechnology and synthetic chemical technology, humans can employ system engineering methods to originate novel beneficial processes. BioDesign eliminates the randomness 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. Development of technologies to genetically tag and/or lock synthesized molecules would provide methods for identifying the origin and source of synthetic biologicals (e.g., genes or proteins) allowing for traceability and prevention of manipulation (“tamper proof” synthetic biological).

FY 2011 Base Plans:
– Demonstrate computation protein conformation algorithms that model one residue per minute with 99.5% accuracy for every one kilodalton of mass regardless of protein class.
– Develop conformation prediction algorithms for biomimetic polymers and biological-nonbiological hybrids involving unnatural amino acids or inorganic materials.
– Demonstrate a robust understanding of the collective mechanisms that contribute to cell death.
– Identify and initiate strategies that would enable a new generation of regenerative cells that could ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely until needed for an injury repair or therapeutic application.
– Develop genetically encoded locks to create “tamper proof” DNA and protect commercial applications.
– Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism “self-destruct” option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism.
– Permanently append a synthetic organism’s genome and prevent foul play by tracking organism use and history, similar to a traceable serial number on a handgun.

So, as I read their Base Plans, it appears that in the next year DARPA will:

  • Solve the protein-folding problem

  • Solve the folding problem for entirely new classes of materials

  • Solve the senescence problem

  • Create synthetic life

  • Create synthetic life that is a proof against evolutionary processes via unprecedented genomic stability

  • Create synthetic life that is a proof against biological adaptivity and will instead self-destruct


What will they do with all their free time?



[1] 2010. DARPA, Department of Defense, Fiscal Year 2011 President’s Budget. PDF (pp.264-265)

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