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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Sponsors Most U.S. Synthetic Biology Work

Federal Funding: National Science Foundation grant program in this field is ending

by Jessica Morrison
October 19, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 41

Two graphs show the distribution of federal funding sources for synthetic biology research.
The Department of Defense now funds more synthetic biology research than all other U.S. agencies combined, according to a new report.
SOURCE: “U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research Funding,” Woodrow Wilson International ­Center for Scholars

When bioengineer Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, asked Congress to create a federal initiative on synthetic biology last year, funding opportunities for grant-seekers in this emerging field had already started changing.

Keasling is the director of the National Science Foundation’s Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). The program had been the nation’s single largest research investment in synthetic biology when it launched in 2006, Keasling told Congress. It cost U.S. taxpayers close to $40 million over 10 years.

But now, that amount looks small ­compared with synthetic biology contracts coming from the Pentagon’s Defense ­Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA grew its unclassified funding for synthetic biology from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014, according to a new report from a think tank that tracks emerging technologies.

Synthetic biology is a relatively new field of research that some scientists see as the application of engineering principles to living organisms and others consider simply advanced genetic engineering. However the field is defined, the outsized role of the Pentagon in funding research is raising eyebrows.

In the report, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars estimates that DARPA’s budget for synthetic biology projects in fiscal 2015, which ended on Sept. 30, exceeded $130 million. That’s nearly as much as NSF invested in synthetic-biology-related research between 2008 and 2014, the report points out.

In September alone, the Department of Defense awarded three synthetic biology contracts totaling more than $78 million through DARPA. All three were given under the agency’s Living Foundries program, launched in 2011 to “apply an engineering framework to biology to harness its use as a technology and drive its advance as a manufacturing platform,” the agency said.

The planned sunset of NSF’s SynBERC in 2016 leaves an uncertain future for synthetic biology research at the U.S.’s basic science grant-making agency. For grant-seekers who start to see DARPA as the main federal backer of synthetic biology research, the U.S. investment might appear lopsided toward military applications. “I’m hoping that trend changes, that other agencies grab on,” Keasling says.

Keasling, whose synthetic biology work has been funded by both NSF and DARPA, wants a coordinated federal effort that encourages other agencies to provide more money for synthetic biology research.

“I’m generally concerned that the U.S. isn’t going to fund this area as well as it should,” he tells C&EN. “A lot of other governments are pouring money into it, and the truth is that this is kind of the basis for industrial biotechnology.” For instance, the U.K. Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council earlier this year launched a synthetic biology initiative backed by more than $60 million. China, too, has a national research program in the area.

Meanwhile, the federal push on synthetic biology is shifting focus. A decade ago, researchers were attempting to re-create the natural processes of cells in the protective, forgiving environment of their laboratories. Now the lab gloves are coming off as synthetic biology moves into the marketplace.

“If we want to engineer biological systems that can interact with the rest of the world and do so reliably and safely, we needed to develop some technologies,” says Justin Gallivan, a chemist who is a DARPA program manager.

Gallivan leads the Biological Robustness in Complex Settings program, created at DARPA in 2014. He says DARPA has the money to bring smart people and big ideas together to think about difficult problems. His program’s mission is to figure out how to develop organisms that are strong enough to survive real-world applications. In particular, he says, it is focused on engineering microbial communities in a predictable way.

At the same time, some researchers are calling for more federal money to go toward risk and ethics research, an approach that would fit in with Keasling’s vision for a federal synthetic biology strategy.

Less than 1% of all federal funding for synthetic biology research addresses risks associated with the technology—and not much more goes to study related ethical, legal, and social issues, says Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center who worked on the report.

The history of nanotechnology and biotechnology shows that little money was spent on understanding and managing their risks either, says Jennifer Kuzma, codirector of the Genetic Engineering & Society Center at North Carolina State University. “It puzzles me, given the revolutionary nature of this technology and the public concern over it.”  


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