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DARPA opens biotech office to utilize biology for national defense

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Artist conception of DARPA heating gold nanoparticles in a cell. Credit: Steven H. Lee
Artist conception of DARPA heating gold nanoparticles in a cell. Credit: Steven H. Lee

"Starting today, biology takes its place among the core sciences that represent the future of defense technology." That's according to a press release today from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announcing its new Biological Technologies Office, which will work on things like internet-enabled prosthetics, memory restoration, and body suits that enable soldiers to carry lots of weight.

The current list of programs focus on defensive rather than offensive uses of biotechnology. DARPA has also said it wants to understand the human biological clock, develop vaccines for viruses before outbreaks even happen, and design social training that will allow soldiers to interact with people from a different culture without a common language.

"Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator."

DARPA is the Defense Department's high-risk, high-reward research lab. The new office was a natural evolution, DARPA says, based on work on neuroscience, sensor design, and systems to harness the potential of microbes in manufacturing being done by its Defense Sciences and Microsystems Technology Offices.

"Biology is nature’s ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions," DARPA director Arati Prabhakar told the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month.

DARPA acknowledges that this foray into biotech and manipulation of human capabilities may raise some new and uncomfortable ethical issues. "For that reason, DARPA periodically convenes scholars with expertise in these issues to discuss relevant ethical, legal, and social issues," the agency says. But relax: cyborgs and disease warfare are not on the table at the moment.