DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) has a mission to “harness the power of biological systems” and design new defense technology. Over the past year, with a budget of about $296 million, it has been exploring challenges including memory improvement, human–machine symbiosis and speeding up disease detection and response.
DARPA has a program called “Living Foundries”—like a foundry where DARPA would build something that’s alive. Traditionally they use chemistry to make new compounds or new drugs. Microbes like yeast and bacteria can also produce compounds, and we can program them to make those compounds by first understanding the chemical pathways they use. Take yeast. Yeast uses sugar for a variety of pathways to produce alcohols. If you reprogram those pathways, however, you could potentially have yeast build a variety of different compounds that they weren’t initially designed to make and we would still use the same feedstocks—like sugar. They have already produced close to 100 new compounds already using these new pathways in yeast and plan to produce 1000 compounds.
Another program is Outpacing Infectious Disease. The current approach is whenever a new pathogen hits our shores then everybody scrambles. DARPA wants to get ahead of any pathogen that may hit our shores and be as ambitious as they can to take pandemics off the table. They have pioneered new work in DNA and RNA approaches to immunization. Specifically, they are thinking about nucleic acid approaches to immunization. The idea is that you can tell your cells that produce antibodies what the right code is for producing the antibodies that would be effective against a pathogen. So you would get a shot, but that shot would have a code in it to tell your cells how to respond to that pathogen—and what that would lead to is a near-instantaneous immunity against that pathogen and an ability to really fight against it.
This DNA- and RNA-based approaches to fight infectious disease could have sone big announcements in 2017. They are already getting some really good results in mouse models indicating that the nucleic acid approaches are working well. They are doing some safety work in humans. They are building new programs for this end-to-end platform.
DARPA has already built a robotic arm that is controlled by neural activity. DARPA will be working on a wide variety of devices that can be controlled via neural activity, not just the assisted kind but also a kind able-bodied individuals could ultimately use in their everyday lives. Another thing we aspire to do in 2017 is think about neural technology in everyday life.