Wired Danger Room – DARPAs Living Foundries project was first announced by the agency last year. Darpa has handed out seven research awards worth $15.5 million to six different companies and institutions including the University of Texas at Austin and the California Institute of Technology. Two contracts were also issued to the J. Craig Venter Institute. Dr. Venter was among the first scientists to sequence a human genome, and his institute was, in 2010, the first to create a cell with entirely synthetic genome.
“Living Foundries” aspires to turn the slow, messy process of genetic engineering into a streamlined and standardized one. Of course, the field is already a burgeoning one: Scientists have tweaked cells in order to develop renewable petroleum and spider silk that’s tough as steel. And a host of companies are investigating the pharmaceutical and agricultural promise lurking — with some tinkering, of course — inside living cells.
Darpa notes, even the most cutting-edge synthetic biology projects “often take 7+ years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars” to complete. Venter’s synthetic cell project, for example, cost an estimated $40 million.
Synthetic biology, as Darpa notes, has the potential to yield “new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines” — everything from fuels to solar cells to vaccines could be produced by engineering different living cells. But the agency isn’t content to wait seven years for each new innovation. In fact, they want the capability for “on-demand production” of whatever bio-product suits the military’s immediate needs.
The starting point, and one that agency-funded researchers will have to create, is a library of “modular genetic parts”: Standardized biological units that can be assembled in different ways — like LEGO — to create different materials.
Once that library is created, the agency wants researchers to come up with a set of “parts, regulators, devices and circuits” that can reliably yield various genetic systems. After that, they’ll also need “test platforms” to quickly evaluate new bio-materials. Think of it as a biological assembly line: Products are designed, pieced together using standardized tools and techniques, and then tested for efficacy.
The process, once established, ought to massively accelerate the pace of bio-engineering — and cut costs. The agency’s asking researchers to “compress the biological design-build-test cycle by at least 10X in both time and cost,” while also “increasing the complexity of systems that can be designed and executed.”