DARPA Boosts Funding for All Things Biological

The agency plans investments in neural engineering, synthetic biology, and more

2 min read
DARPA Boosts Funding for All Things Biological
Photo: Brendan McIlhargey/iStockphoto

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. 

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Understanding the Coronavirus Is Like Reading a Sentence

And parsing its "words" and "grammar" could lead to better COVID-19 vaccines

10 min read
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Illustration showing the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. At the virus's core is its RNA (ribonucleic acid) genome (coils). Embedded in the viral envelope (grey) are spike proteins (red) that the virus uses to attach to and infect a host cell.
John Bavaro/Science Source

Since the beginning of 2020, we've heard an awful lot about RNA. First, an RNA coronavirus created a global pandemic and brought the world to a halt. Scientists were quick to sequence the novel coronavirus's genetic code, revealing it to be a single strand of RNA that is folded and twisted inside the virus's lipid envelope. Then, RNA vaccines set the world back in motion. The first two COVID-19 vaccines to be widely approved for emergency use, those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, contained snippets of coronavirus RNA that taught people's bodies how to mount a defense against the virus.

But there's much more we need to know about RNA. RNA is most typically single-stranded, which means it is inherently less stable than DNA, the double-stranded molecule that encodes the human genome, and it's more prone to mutations. We've seen how the coronavirus mutates and gives rise to dangerous new variants. We must therefore be ready with new vaccines and booster shots that are precisely tailored to the new threats. And we need RNA vaccines that are more stable and robust and don't require extremely low temperatures for transport and storage.

That's why it's never been more important to understand RNA's intricate structure and to master the ability to design sequences of RNA that serve our purposes. Traditionally, scientists have used techniques from computational biology to tease apart RNA's structure. But that's not the only way, or even the best way, to do it. Work at my group at Baidu Research USA and Oregon State University has shown that applying algorithms originally developed for natural language processing (NLP)—which helps computers parse human language—can vastly speed up predictions of RNA folding and the design of RNA sequences for vaccines.

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