Saturday, February 6th, 2010
The Pentagon’s advanced research division has set aside $6 million from its next budget for research on the creation of “synthetic organisms” whose DNA can be altered to make them live forever, or die on command, and even keep a genetic record of what they have been doing.
In its 2011 budget (PDF, 522 pages), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency lays out its intention to create “BioDesign,” a project to create artificial life, presumably with military purposes in mind.
“BioDesign eliminates the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect,” the DARPA document states.
The agency says it wants to develop “a robust understanding of the collective mechanisms that contribute to cell death” so as to “enable a new generation of regenerative cells that could ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.”
But, if those organisms should malfunction or run the course of their usefulness, the agency also wants to have the ability to have them die on command, what it calls a “self-destruct option.”
The agency also wants to create “tamper-proof” genetic codes, so that enemy forces can’t reprogram the life forms to switch sides.
And finally, DARPA also wants these organisms’ genetic sequences to “record” what they have been doing, presumably for surveillance purposes, “similar to a traceable serial number on a handgun.”
Reporting at Wired.com, Katie Drummond says the Pentagon is “up against some vexing, fundamental laws of nature.”
First, they might want to rethink the idea of evolution as a random series of events, says NYU biology professor David Fitch. “Evolution by selection is nota random process at all, and is actually a hugely efficient design algorithm used extensively in computation and engineering,” he e-mails Danger Room.“And then there’s all of the ethical dilemmas involved in literally playing God,” comments John Funk at The Escapist. “But that’s only if the science actually works.”
Even if Darpa manages to overcome the inherent intelligence of evolutionary processes, overcoming inevitable death can be tricky. Just ask all the other research teams who’ve made stabs at it, trying everything from cell starvation to hormone treatments.