DARPA Seeks to Employ Biology in Manufacturing

WASHINGTON — In its lat­est effort to make the impos­si­ble prob­a­ble, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is look­ing for com­pa­nies that can har­ness biol­o­gy to speed up and low­er the cost of pro­duc­ing new mate­ri­als and devices.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency / DARPA
A new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project called Liv­ing Foundries is look­ing for com­pa­nies that can har­ness biol­o­gy to speed up and low­er the cost of pro­duc­ing new mate­ri­als and devices.
DARPA illus­tra­tion
Click to enlarge

Ali­cia Jack­son, a pro­gram man­ag­er in DARPA’s Microsys­tems Tech­nol­o­gy Office, pre­sent­ed the basics of “Liv­ing Foundries” to rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 170 com­pa­nies here this week dur­ing an Indus­try Day to launch the program. 

“This is going to give us a com­plete­ly new man­u­fac­tur­ing capa­bil­i­ty for the U.S. to har­ness,” Jack­son told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

DARPA expects to award mul­ti­ple con­tracts — up to a total of $30 mil­lion — for the first Liv­ing Foundries broad agency announcement. 

Jack­son called the pro­gram “the largest pub­lic invest­ment in this field, at least in the Unit­ed States.” 

Many com­pa­nies already use bio­log­i­cal organ­isms — main­ly cells from yeast and Escherichia coli — to pro­duce bio­fu­els such as ethanol and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals like the anti­malar­i­al drug artemisinin. 

The dis­ci­pline often is called syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy but DARPA wants to go beyond that, to what Jack­son calls engi­neer­ing biol­o­gy, speed­ing up the pro­duc­tion time­line and low­er­ing the cost of prod­ucts made by biology. 

To achieve the goals and vision of the Liv­ing Foundries pro­gram, she added, sev­er­al tools from dif­fer­ent fields will be need­ed, includ­ing syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy and meta­bol­ic engineering. 

“It’s how can we apply engi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples to biol­o­gy so we can get it to make the things we want to make in a rapid, pre­dictable fash­ion,” she said. 

Today, Jack­son said, “if you want to make some­thing that we don’t know how to make using biol­o­gy, it’s going to take you a min­i­mum of sev­en years and [cost] tens to hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for each prod­uct you want to make.” 

A recent exam­ple involves the drug artemisinin, used to treat malar­ia, the dis­ease caused by par­a­sites that infect­ed mos­qui­toes trans­mit to peo­ple. In 2008, accord­ing to the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, malar­ia caused near­ly 1 mil­lion deaths. 

The drug typ­i­cal­ly comes from a plant called Artemisia annua, or sweet worm­wood, which takes about a year to cultivate. 

“Peo­ple only plant it when the price of artemisinin is high,” Jack­son said, “and then when every­one plants it you auto­mat­i­cal­ly crash the price and so then no one plants it.” 

For peo­ple in devel­op­ing coun­tries who are most like­ly to need anti­malar­i­al drugs, she said, “this is not a sus­tain­able scenario.” 

In 2003, researchers led by Jay Keasling from Lawrence Berke­ley Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley used biol­o­gy to pro­duce a pre­cur­sor to artemisinin. 

In 2004, with $43 mil­lion from the Bill and Melin­da Gates Foun­da­tion, the team over two years built a chem­i­cal fac­to­ry by adding genes from bac­te­ria, yeast and sweet worm­wood to yeast, whose cells churned out artemisinic acid. 

This method of pro­duc­ing the drug great­ly low­ers its pro­duc­tion time­line and cost, Jack­son said, and ensures the product’s purity. 

The prod­uct went from Keasling’s lab to a part­ner­ship among the Insti­tute for OneWorld Health, Amyris Biotech­nolo­gies and Sanofi-Aven­tis, which plans to put the drug on the com­mer­cial mar­ket in 2012, she added. 

“And it took 11 years,” Jack­son said. “You can talk to a bunch of biotech com­pa­nies and they will tell you that this is the state of biotech today.” 

What if, Jack­son said, we could do it in a year? 

“Giv­en all the great things biol­o­gy can make, whether we’re look­ing at chem­i­cals or fuels or ther­a­peu­tics, I don’t think we want to wait 10 years each time and spend tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions of dollars.” 

If Liv­ing Foundries works as planned, with­in a year or two sev­er­al com­pa­nies may have cre­at­ed bio­log­i­cal pro­to­types that investors would be will­ing to back with com­mer­cial-scale pro­duc­tion facilities. 

“The next step is for us to release a broad agency announce­ment, Jack­son said. “That’s essen­tial­ly our call for proposals.” 

Com­pa­nies that respond to the announce­ment won’t com­pete against each oth­er, they’ll be cho­sen based on their ideas. 

“What we’re talk­ing about here is not nec­es­sar­i­ly mak­ing one spe­cif­ic thing. We’re not in that one-off world we’re in today where you make one thing, but you’re no bet­ter at mak­ing the next thing,” Jack­son said. 

“We’re all about cre­at­ing the capa­bil­i­ty,” she added, “so we can make a huge array of things that we can’t even pro­duce today.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

Face­book and/or on Twit­ter

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefence.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →