DARPA, the U.S. defense agency devoted to high-risk, high-reward research, has traditionally dedicated its resources to the physical sciences: nuclear bomb test detection, the stealth fighter, and the Internet are just a few of the technologies that DARPA pioneered. Today, however, the agency announced a new emphasis on biology with the establishment of its Biological Technologies Office, BTO.
The agency began taking a greater interest in the life sciences over the last decade, spurred in particular by the needs of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and neural problems. The new office will incorporate existing bio-related programs, and plans to start others across a wide range of scales—from individual cells to humans to global ecosystems.
Geoff Ling, director of the BTO, says that biological research is a natural complement to the agency's existing engineering knowhow. For example, he says, warfighters' capabilities must match those of their tools. "There’s a recognition that our technology is improving, but there still remains a human in the loop," he says. Ling sees an obligation to ensure that "the human can perform optimally in that entire system."
BTO has three announced research areas. The first will focus on restoring and maintaining warfighter abilities, and will further DARPA's recent efforts on advanced prosthetics and neural engineering. Its successful Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has already developed several sophisticated mechatronic arms, including prosthetics that can be wired into the wearer's remaining nerves or muscles. The next step may come from the HAPTIX program, currently open to proposals, which calls for prosthetics that can send sensory information back to the user. The neural engineering programs will include the recently announced SUBNETS, which will investigate deep brain stimulation therapies for neural and psychiatric disorders, and RAM, which will develop implantable memory prosthetics.
The second research area covers synthetic biology programs like the Battlefield Medicine effort. "Can we develop a capability so that warfighters can make the medication they need on the spot?" Ling asks. DARPA imagines a bacterium that could be reprogrammed to make the necessary pharmaceutical molecules on the fly, but Ling says that basic research must lead the way. "To do that, you of course need deep knowledge of the genetic machinery," he says.
BTO's final concentration calls for research to better understand the dynamics of ecosystems. This component seems the least well-defined at the moment, but its sketchy description, with references to the microbiome that resides in each human's gut and to disease epidemics, suggest a health focus.
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.