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DARPA's Mad Science?

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By Dawn Lim February 16, 2010

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Wired had a field day decrying Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's proposed project, BioDesign, as a "mad science" project to "rewrite the laws of evolution to the military's advantage, creating 'synthetic organisms' that can live forever -- or can be killed with the flick of a molecular switch."

If that sounded just a little alarming, here's the fine print of DARPA's fiscal 2011 budget:

BioDesign eliminates the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement primarily by advanced genetic engineering and molecular biology technologies to produce the intended biological effect.

DARPA plans to "identify and initiate strategies that would enable a new generation of regenerative cells that could ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely until needed for an injury repair or therapeutic application."

The budget also says that researchers will work on "encoded locks to create 'tamper proof' DNA" and "create a synthetic organism 'self-destruct' option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism."

Of course, the news went viral, triggering over 500 tweets and emotional online discussions. Some were up in arms over the possibility that a eugenics program to design re-engineered soldiers was in the works.

The science behind this $6 million research program -- a drop in the ocean in DARPA's $3.1 billion budget -- is probably not what it's been blown up to be.

The real point of this project, one commenter explains with exasperated patience,

is not to make immortal organisms, but rather organisms that don't lose artificially-introduced functions (e.g. bioweapon, agricultural function, etc.) to mutation in the absence of selective pressure for that function. . . . if you could improve the "lifetime" of a function in an evolving organism by reducing its ability to evolve (or finding tricks to force it to stay more static), you'd have a better bioweapon (or agricultural product, or whatever). The individuals would not even have to be immortal for this, as long as the function was maintained in the "species" (or variety).

Perhaps this little hoo-ha could be a reminder that federal agencies might just want to be more careful with loaded words like "evolution" and "synthetic organism." In today's Twitterverse, words are self-replicating and have the ability to generate potent aftershocks.

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