DARPA launching Living Factories project; harnessing biology to speed up and lower the cost of producing new materials and devices
The Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching a new program—“Living Factories”—the goal of which is to apply an engineering framework to biology to harness its use as a technology and drive its advance as a manufacturing platform. The MTO earlier this week sponsored an Industry Day for the program.
By turning biological production into an engineering space, Living Foundries aims to enable on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities for the Department of Defense and establish a new manufacturing capability for the United States. DARPA expects to award multiple contracts up to a total of $30 million for the first Living Foundries broad agency announcement (BAA).
The program office said that current, primitive examples of engineering biology rely on an ad hoc, laborious, trial-and-error process, wherein one successful project does not inform subsequent, new designs. This approach combined with the complexity of biological systems restricts current, one-off efforts to modifying only a small set of genes and constructing simple, isolated genetic circuits and metabolic pathways.
This, notes DARPA, limits production to only a small fraction of the vast number of possible chemicals, materials, and living systems that would be enabled by the ability to truly engineer biology.
Through an engineering-driven approach to biology, Living Foundries aims to create a rapid, reliable manufacturing capability where multiple cellular functions can be fabricated, mixed and matched on demand and the whole system controlled by integrated circuitry, opening up the full space of biologically produced materials and systems. Key to success will be the democratization of the biological design and manufacturing process, breaking open the field to those outside the biological sciences.—DARPA on Living Factories
Achieving this vision will require development of new tools, technologies and methodologies to transform biology into an engineering practice, decoupling design from fabrication and speeding the biological design, build, test cycle. These include:
- design tools that span from high-level description to fabrication in cells;
- modular genetic parts that allow a combination of systems to be designed and reproducibly assembled;
- methods for developing and fine-tuning new genetic parts and systems;
- well-understood test platforms, "cell-like" systems and chassis that readily integrate new genetic designs in a predictable fashion;
- next generation DNA synthesis and assembly techniques; and
- tools that allow for routine system characterization and debugging, among others.
Further, these technological advances and innovations must be integrated to prove-out and push the boundaries of biological design towards the ultimate vision of point-of-use, on-demand, mass-customization biological manufacturing.