DARPA Synthetic Biomanufacturing Technologies

Launched in 2010, DARPA’s Living Foundries program aimed to enable adaptable, scalable, and on-demand production of critical, high-value molecules by programming the fundamental metabolic processes of biological systems to generate a vast number of complex molecules. These molecules were often prohibitively expensive, unable to be domestically sourced, and/or impossible to manufacture using traditional synthetic chemistry approaches.

DARPA has made over 1,600 molecules and material precursors spanning a wide range of defense-relevant applications including industrial chemicals, fuels, coatings, and adhesives.

The Living Foundries program succeeded not only in meeting its programmatic goals of producing 1000 molecules as a proof-of-concept, but pivoted in 2019 to expand program objectives to working with military mission partners to test molecules for military applications. The performer teams collectively have produced over 1630 molecules and materials to-date, and more importantly, DARPA is transitioning a subset of these technologies to five military research teams from Army, Navy, and Air Force labs who partnered with the agency on testing and evaluation over the course of the program.

The Living Foundries teams used a range of technologies and strategies to address significant synthetic biology challenges as outlined below:

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) team led by Dr. Ben Harvey in collaboration with Amyris, Inc. and Zymergen developed tools and technologies for producing high-performance chemicals and materials useful in a variety of military applications. NAWCWD converted precursor molecules into high energy density fuels, energetic materials, thermostable polymers, and high-performance composites. These technologies will be further developed through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Bioengineering and Biomanufacturing Program, the ONR Advanced Energetics Manufacturing Pipeline, The Wright Brothers Institute/AFRL Synthetic Biology Challenge, and the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE).

United States Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC) team (Drs. Greg Peterson, Jared DeCoste, and Vipin Rastogi) are developing filters, fabrics, and decontaminating wipes to combat chemical and biological weapons agents using biologically templated materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This technology will undergo further testing and development at DEVCOM CBC as part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency multifunctional material program.

Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate (AFRL RX) team, led by Drs. Nick Godman and Tod Grusenmeyer, produced laser eye protection goggles using bio-derived molecules developed by Zymergen. This technology will be transferred to the Personnel Protection Team in AFRL RX for testing and evaluation.

AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate (AFRL RQ) team (Drs. Oscar Ruiz, Don Phelps, and Paul Wrzesinski) is testing fuels developed by NAWCWD using biologically produced molecules from Amyris, Inc. for use in military aircraft and will work with the Navy on additional development efforts.

DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory team (Drs. Joshua Orlicki, Anthony Clay, John La Scala, and Robert Jensen) formulated adhesives for evaluation to potentially attach armor to vehicles and polymers for 3D printing applications using technologies developed by Amyris and Zymergen. ARL will continue development of these technologies.

Written By Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture.com