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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