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
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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)

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