The U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm is making a concerted grasp at biotechnology. On 1 April, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a new division that will consolidate biology research scattered across its existing six divisions and possibly expand the arsenal of projects. “Researchers should see this move as a recognition of the enormous potential of biological technologies,” Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the new Biological Technologies Office (BTO), told ScienceInsider in an e-mail. Whether the agency will devote a larger chunk of the roughly $2.9 billion in its requested 2015 budget to biotech programs is not yet clear.
DARPA has been applying its high-risk, high-reward funding model to projects in the life sciences for years. In 1997, it announced the first big push into research on fighting biological hazards. More recently, it launched the Living Foundries program to use cells as molecular factories for making new materials. And its Defense Sciences Office (DSO) has aligned with President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, calling for grant applications on projects to design therapeutic devices for neurological disorders and to repair brain damage in military service members. A key player in those brain-focused programs, former DSO deputy director and neurologist Geoffrey Ling, will direct the new division.
But those disparate biology projects “percolating throughout DARPA” have now reached “critical mass,” Jackson wrote. The agency has transplanted 23 in-progress programs from other divisions to seed the BTO, and it could decide to fund new biotech effort as others age out. “We start and end(!) programs as technological opportunities arise,” she wrote.
DARPA’s biology research may be more centralized now, but its interests are still far-flung. The three broad “focus areas” laid out in this week’s announcement include technology to support service members (including prosthetics and neurological therapies) and synthetic biology research such as the Living Foundries program. There’s also a more recent foray into the study of complex biological systems, from the population-wide dynamics of a disease outbreak to the way human bodies align their functions to a biological clock.
The restructuring is also meant to send a message to researchers in biotech who may not have considered working with DARPA. Jackson wants to focus on recruiting new program managers—who normally serve 3- to 5-year stints—and reach out to “young researchers and start-ups who may have little idea of how to interact with DARPA or that DARPA exists at all.”