by Lena Groeger
June 10, 2011

from Wired Website






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.


One of the specifics they’re looking for? Modular genetic parts. Kind of like Legos for biology, a standardized system of bio-units capable of being assembled in any which way would explode the possibilities for producing new materials and systems.


Something like this already exists - the Registry of Standard Biological Parts lists thousands of BioBricks, or DNA modules that control everything from breaking down chemicals to killing off cells.


Expanding this open source “Williams-Sonoma catalog of synthetic biology” could lead to creations we’ve only ever dreamed of.


DARPA is also looking for design tools to map out individual projects, cell-like systems and chassis to use as templates, new test platforms and DNA-assembly techniques, and methods for fine-tuning and debugging.


Basically, they want a space for biological innovation limited only by the “creativity of the designer.” And designers have been known to get pretty creative, so who knows what they could do with DARPA money.


I guess we’ll see soon enough - they, along with all other brave souls, have until June 21 to submit an idea.