DARPA, Synthetic Biology and Human Germline Engineering

Posted by Pete Shanks April 9, 2015
Biopolitical Times

DARPA wants to change the world — again. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as it is rarely called, mostly focuses on national security and "game-changing military capabilities" but its range goes much wider. The agency boasts of its contributions to our high-tech society, including the Internet, GPS and even graphical interfaces. And now synthetic biology is becoming an important part of its agenda.

At the end of March, the agency released a 40-page report, Breakthrough Technologies for National Security [pdf]. As the press release summarizes, one of DARPA's four current main areas for "strategic investments" is:

Harness Biology as Technology: To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics and related fields, DARPA in 2014 created its Biological Technologies Office, which has enabled a new level of momentum for the Agency's portfolio of innovative, bio-based programs. DARPA's work in this area includes programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neurotechnologies.

The report is basically a PR document. Skeptics such as Ed Hammond point to unaddressed risks of field releases and the engineering of vaccines; bioethicist Jonathan Moreno is concerned that DARPA doesn't seem to take ethical advice seriously.

But there are those who are thrilled by the new vision: transhumanists. A well-reported article in February's H+ (humanity-plus) magazine is triumphantly titled:

Biology is Technology — DARPA is Back in the Game With A Big Vision and It Is H+

The piece summarizes the agency's ambition in this arena:

They're out to revolutionize the practice and products of bio-science and along the way they are re-defining what it will mean to be human.

DARPA is not the only federal agency ramping up biotechnology. The Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, which has been deeply involved in genome sequencing for years, is planning, according to GenomeWeb, to move "into functional genomics and synthetic biology."

Government agencies have long been involved in many kinds of high-tech research. International security expert Nafeez Ahmed may perhaps overstate his case, but the connections between the various defense and surveillance industries and Silicon Valley are real. This would be less surprising, and less unsettling, if it were not for the widely shared perception that the high-tech titans are now fundamentally disconnected from morality, as Eric Giannella details in "Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley." In defense and high tech, it is fair to say that transparency has rarely been a priority. It is worrying to think that synthetic biology may be heading in the same direction.

We hear that, at the press conference promoting the new DARPA report, some journalists asked about the current controversies over human germline engineering, and were brushed off with a dismissive comment about "pressing on." This does not seem to have been published, so we cannot confirm it, but it's certainly plausible. DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar is quoted (or perhaps paraphrased) in The Atlantic as saying that "the agency constantly considers the political and scientific controversies surrounding biotechnology research, but that it isn't in the interests of DARPA or the nation to hold back because of controversy."

Clearly this recent DARPA focus on cutting-edge biotech is potentially quite disturbing. At best it means that secret, unaccountable biological research is continuing; at worst — if government-funded scientists are pursuing human germline modification behind closed lab doors — that we have a lot more to worry about than we thought.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: