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Machines Like Us

Darpa, Venter launch assembly line for genetic engineering

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The military-industrial complex just got a little bit livelier. Quite literally.

That’s because Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm, has kicked off a program designed to take the conventions of manufacturing and apply them to living cells. Think of it like an assembly line, but one that would churn out modified biological matter—man-made organisms—instead of cars or computer parts.

The program, called “Living Foundries,” was first announced by the agency last year. Now, Darpa’s handed out seven research awards worth $15.5 million to six different companies and institutions. Among them are several Darpa favorites, 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 is something of a biology superstar: He was among the first scientists to sequence a human genome, and his institute was, in 2010, the first to develop an entirely synthetic organism.

“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.

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