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Pentagon wants to fast-track genetic engineering

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The Pentagon’s venture capital arm awarded $17.8 million to seven research institutions in May to develop basic genetic building blocks and other easy-to-deploy biological tools to make it easier for scientists to create new medicines and materials.

The funding was through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s research and development program Living Foundries. The project enlists scientists to develop ways to accelerate the process of designing and testing biological materials “by at least 10x in both time and cost” in a field where “the state of the art development cycle for engineering a new biologically manufactured product often takes 7+ years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to a request for proposals.

DARPA wants to bring efficiency and standardization to a laborious process of genetic engineering that has been largely individualized and dependent on the practices of different labs. It is funding ways to develop an “engineering framework to biology” that can “introduce new architectures and tools” for genetic engineering. For instance, if basic synthetic protein structures could be devised that scientist could play with immediately, they wouldn’t have to mine and harvest naturally occurring genes, speeding up the rate at which new vaccines and materials can be genetically created.

“The outcome should be an open technology platform that integrates these tools and capabilities, allowing new designs to rapidly move from conception to execution,” the solicitation states.

The largest recipients of funding so far are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which got about $5.9 million, the J. Craig Venter Institute, which received $4 million in funding, and Stanford University, which was awarded $3.2 million, contracting databases show. Other recipients include Harvard College, the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin.

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