WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As our understanding of how to manipulate the genetic code improves we’re slowing unlocking a whole new world of possible use cases.
The US Pentagon’s bleeding edge research arm DARPA, whose crazy projects include everything from using Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) to upload knowledge into people’s brains, turning plants and marine life into living sensor networks, and bringing crops back from the dead – all for starters – recently announced that they want to explore the possibility of editing a soldier’s genetic makeup to protect against chemical and biological attacks. And if that sounds odd, then consider this – NASA recently pondered genetically engineering astronauts so they could photosynthesise in space, after all, it’s no secret that there’s a shortage of food in space so why not?
It may sound like something torn from a page in a science fiction novel, but DARPA director Steven Walker said that he “believes gene editing has the potential to be one of the most consequential technological advances for the US military in the future.”
“Why is DARPA doing this?” Walker said during a panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “[To] protect a soldier on the battlefield from chemical weapons and biological weapons by controlling their genome — having the genome produce proteins that would automatically protect the soldier from the inside out. And so just the amount of technological change in that area and the … more capability we have to engineer biology for use is why I think it’s just the most exciting field right now.”
Historically, the military has sought to protect troops from chemical and biological weapons by using protective clothing and vaccines but advances in gene therapy — which allows scientists to manipulate DNA — creates an opportunity to turn the human body itself into the solution. Gene manipulation could be a better solution to the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons when vaccines are hard to come by, Walker explained.
“We don’t have the capability yet, but that’s why you want to be able to actually have your body be the antibody factory, if possible,” he said. And, again, if you think that he’s the only one thinking in this way then recently scientists turned human cells into dual core computers using gene editing tools, and elsewhere scientists demonstrated how we could genetically engineer the human body and turn it into a disease fighting supercomputer that identifies and then kills pathogens in new sci-fi like ways. The future is not what you think it is…
In addition to learning how to manipulate genes though DARPA also wants to learn how to reverse the gene editing process in case something goes wrong – after all, as the ease and cost of creating new types of genetic weapons gets cheaper, with a university recently using a $100 CRISPR gene editing kit to re-create the extinct horsepox virus this too is a major area of concern. It’s also why MIT researchers are now developing the equivalent of gene editing “Kryptonite” tools that will prevent people from editing genomes in the first place.
In DARPA’s case the agency’s “Safe Genes” program is designed to protect troops “from accidental or intentional misuse of genome editing technologies” and DARPA sees the program as part of its “mission to prevent technological surprise,” Walker said.
Preventing these surprises goes all the way back to DARPA’s founding in 1957 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. Today, the agency is working to prevent similar surprises from global competitors like China.
“I believe the best way to compete with our peer adversaries is to win those tech races for the 21st century,” Walker told the Washington Examiner.