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DARPA Synthetic Biology Hysteria

Wired Science and several other outlets have picked up a story about DARPA research with the apparent aim of alarming without truly informing. Apparently, as part of an announced budget for next year, DARPA — the far-out research wing of the U.S. military — is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, whose aim is to create “immortal” engineered “lab-monsters” (what type of organism isn’t specified) that have a built-in virtual “serial number” and an emergency “kill switch.” It’s hard to evaluate what exactly is being proposed, but the tone of the coverage strikes me as drummed-up alarmism.

The blog In Pursuit of Happiness contains the actual excerpt from the budget, and the description there sounds pretty much like many definitions of plain old synthetic biology — “eliminating the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect.”

There’s not much truly new here — kill switches and molecular markers already exist, and “increasing resistance to cell death” really just seems to mean creating a biological system that is sustainable. I don’t really think there’s anything to see here, folks. DARPA has been interested in synthetic biology as long as the nascent field has had a name, and in addition to the $6 million for BioDesign, it is investing $20 million into a new synthetic biology program and $7.5 million into “increasing by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes.”

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