May 23, 2012
DARPA Kicks Off Assembly Line Project For Genetic Engineering
|DARPA has awarded funding to multiple organizations as part of the Living Foundries project that will invest in and develop synthetic biology projects. The goal, according to the agency's program manager Alicia Jackson, is to revolutionize materials science, and to foster projects that will enable the creation and manufacture of materials that are not possible to make today, such as more efficient solar and electronic materials.|
The program called called “Living Foundries,” is designed to apply the conventions of manufacturing to living cells, Wired Danger Room reports.
The Living Foundries Program seeks to create the engineering framework for biology, speeding the biological design-build-test cycle and expanding the complexity of systems that can be engineered.
The Program, headed by Dr. Alicia Jackson, aims to develop new tools, technologies and methodologies to decouple biological design from fabrication, yield design rules and tools, and manage biological complexity through abstraction and standardization. These foundational tools would enable the rapid development of previously unattainable technologies and products, leveraging biology to solve challenges associated with production of new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines.
Expanding the possible materials that can be made by engineered cells will require making microbes that can deal with other feedstocks—going beyod sugar and cellulose. DARPA wants to open up the periodic table so that cells can make, for example, efficient semiconductor materials.
Synthetic biology today is "expensive and time consuming, and this limits innovation," said Jackson. "We [at DARPA] are that genie in a bottle that will make the impossible inevitable."
For example, one motivating, widespread and currently intractable problem is that of corrosion/materials degradation. The Department of Defence must operate in all environments, including some of the most corrosively aggressive on Earth, and do so with increasingly complex heterogeneous materials systems. This multifaceted and ubiquitous problem costs the DoD approximately $23 Billion per year. The ability to truly program and engineer biology, would enable the capability to design and engineer systems to rapidly and dynamically prevent, seek out, identify and repair corrosion/materials degradation.
Accomplishing this vision requires an approach that is more than multidisciplinary – it requires a new engineering discipline built upon the integration of new ideas, approaches and tools from fields spanning computer science and electrical engineering to chemistry and the biological sciences. The best innovations will introduce new architectures and tools into an open technology platform to rapidly move new designs from conception to execution.
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 building blocks — 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.
It will develop into 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.”
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Tags: Alicia Jackson , bioengineering , biology , biotechnology , Craig J. Venter , Darpa , genomics , Living Foundries Program
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