IARPA seeks tech to ID bioengineered life forms

A new bio-detection tech development effort by the intelligence community takes a page from science fiction.

Shutterstock image ID 56053429 credit nobeastsofierce Double helix DNA molecule with modified genes

WHAT: A new bio-detection tech development effort to help defend against human engineered biological threats.

WHY: With advances in genetic engineering and gene editing, the intelligence community is concerned about possible threats from chimerical life forms.

The research arm of the intelligence community is hoping new bio-detection technology can be developed to help defend against human engineered biological threats.

That idea might sound a bit familiar to science fiction buffs.

It is reminiscent of the science fiction film "Blade Runner," an adaptation of Philp K. Dick’s classic 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" In the story, special futuristic cops are charged with defending human civilization from the depredations of genetically engineered android super-soldiers dubbed replicants.

In a June 19 announcement, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity said it is looking for technology that can detect human engineered changes to natural biological systems.

Emerging genetic editing tools have the potential to aid in the development of  new vaccines and pharmaceuticals and to create hardy strains of crops. However, in the wrong hands, these tools could also be used to warp organisms into deliberate weapons or be misused in ways that could "accidentally or deliberately" threaten national health, security or the economy, according to the solicitation.

IARPA said its Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators (FELIX) program looks to develop new tech that can spot genetically engineered changes within biological systems to spur "mitigation responses to unlawful or accidental release of organisms." IARPA said it wants to develop a suite of tools to detect a range of engineered bio-organisms from viruses, bacteria, insects, animals and plants that have been developed from natural organisms "that are either purposefully or accidentally developed and/or released with the potential to cause harm."

IARPA plans a proposers' day on July 27 before it sends out a formal solicitation for the technology.

IARPA said technologies it wants to discuss include novel methods and high throughput techniques in genomics, systems biology, bioinformatics and evolutionary biology.

The tools it's aiming to develop could find genetic signatures that haven't been accessible before with previous technologies, using data from multiple interrogation points, increasing sensitivity, improving the quality of the data and leveraging technologies that can increase throughput and reduce the complexity of sample analysis.

IARPA said it envisions FELIX development as a two-phase program. The first phase, it said, is to develop platforms and technologies that can be made general enough to detect "signatures" that would give away engineered biological systems and develop modeling and analysis of those indicators.

The second phase, IARPA said, will optimize the platform, analysis tools and technologies to detect increasingly complex and sophisticated changes in biological systems and find those engineered changes in a variety of organisms and sample types.

Click here to read the full announcement.