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The big trends in synthetic biology you need to know

DARPA has emerged as a leader in the synthetic biology space, recently awarding a $32 million contract to the Broad Institute Foundry for DNA design and manufacturing. (Credit: Len Rubenstein/Broad Institute)

Both public sector agencies and private sector investors are pouring new money into the synthetic biology space, and that’s leading to a situation where we can expect a burst of new innovations impacting fields as diverse as agriculture, energy and health. According to the latest “U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding” report from the Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project in Washington, D.C., the U.S. government funded more than $820 million in synthetic biology research programs in the period from 2008-2014.

In the public sector, the role of innovation giant DARPA in funding synthetic biology projects has exploded, eclipsing the role of other prominent U.S. government agencies that fund synthetic biology programs, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the USDA. In 2014 alone, DARPA funded $100 million in programs, more than three times the amount funded by the NSF, marking a fast ramp-up from a level of zero in 2010.

Given the innovation leadership role that DARPA has played in everything from self-driving cars and robots to the development of the Internet, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on what DARPA is doing in the field of synthetic biology. Through initiatives such as its Living Foundries program, DARPA seeks to facilitate the creation of a manufacturing platform for living organisms. At the end of September, DARPA awarded an MIT synthetic biology lab, the Broad Institute Foundry, a $32 million contract for designing and manufacturing DNA.

As Todd Kuiken, the senior program associate at the Wilson Center Synthetic Biology Project who authored the report, told me in a conversation, DARPA now represents close to 60 percent of all public funding in the synthetic biology field. If you add in all Department of Defense spending, he says, then nearly two-thirds of all synthetic biology funding from the federal government has a defense industry tilt to it.

That could be worrisome if you consider the prospects for the weaponization of synthetic organisms and the potential to create biological mayhem in countries that are not friendly to the United States. Many of the Department of Defense programs are classified and exact numbers are difficult to come by, so there’s no real way to know what the U.S. Army or Navy might be working on.

Yet, as Kuiken told me, many of the military programs appear to focus on dual-use technologies, such as bacteria that can clean the barnacles off the bottom of U.S. Navy vessels. There’s also a U.S. Army program for “biologically-inspired power generation,” which could have potential applications for the consumer sector as well — as long as you’re okay with powering your digital devices with living organisms rather than batteries.

The second key finding from the report is that little or no funding (less than 1 percent of the total amount) is being allocated to “risk research” – research that attempts to determine what impact creating genetically modified organisms has on the environment or on humans. That’s worrisome, given the public skepticism over GMOs. There’s also very little (also less than 1 percent) being allocated to study of the ethical, legal or moral aspects of tinkering with organisms.

If U.S. government agencies are handing out money to create new organisms, then they also have a responsibility to ensure that those organisms are handled properly. Kuiken notes that the EPA, for example, could put money into this type of research to prevent potential environmental health risks to humans. And, DARPA, which has ramped up its Biological Robustness in Complex Settings (BRICS) program for making biological organisms capable of surviving outside of tightly controlled lab environments, is a natural funding entity for this type of work.

Given the expanding array of government funding programs across industries and sectors, it’s perhaps no surprise that there are some mind-blowing projects included in the 78-page appendix to the synthetic biology report listing all funded programs. NASA, for example, has provided funding a project that sounds like it was the inspiration for “The Martian”— a grant provided to Rice University for “a cellular system suitable for resource utilization on extraterrestrial planetary surfaces.” (Texans are figuring out how to farm on Mars!) Another NASA grant is a $340,000 project for resource recovery and optimization during long-duration spaceflight missions.

And there’s the potential for even more creative programs, given the growing rise of alternative crowdfunding programs for synthetic biology. The Synthetic Biology Project report, in fact, provides a full list of these projects in the appendix. Some of this interest in tapping into the crowd, no doubt, can be traced back to the wildly popular “Glowing Plant” Kickstarter project that raised nearly $500,000 from the crowd back in 2013 (and stirred up quite a bit of controversy along the way). In 2014, another Kickstarter project sought to raise over $100,000 for “Nuclear Waste Clean Up With Synthetic Biology.”

For biologists, says Kuiken, these crowdfunding platforms could become an alternative to the long, grueling process of filing a federal grant and then waiting for the money to come in months later. With crowdfunding platforms such as, biologists can come up with unique projects for very targeted research interests. And, best of all, these researchers may not be required to share a significant portion of the funds raised with the university for overhead costs if the crowdfunding money is classified as a “gift” rather than a “grant.”

Given the ramp up in investor attention around synthetic biology, 2016 just might be the year that the once obscure field finally tips into the mainstream, especially as the massive spigot of DARPA funding starts to result in viable innovations. At a DARPA synthetic biology event in New York City this summer, for example, there was talk of everything from new organ transplant methods to terraforming the surface of Mars. Given DARPA’s long track record of success in backing world-changing innovations, it’s only a question of when, not if, the field of synthetic biology takes off from here.