DARPA’s Synthetic Biology Initiatives Could Militarize the Environment

Is that something we’re comfortable with?



Sure, the U.S. military has deployed the power of biology and nature before. For instance, the Navy trains dolphins to detect underwater mines. The Army Research Office studies life sciences to find new ways to better soldier protection and performance. And during the Vietnam War, the military experimented with weather manipulation.

In recent years, however, the military—mostly under the umbrella of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—has created a new suite of programs that take a very different approach to harnessing the power of nature: synthetic biology. Among other initiatives, researchers at DARPA are attempting to engineer insects to deliver protective genes to plants; to transform bacteria and yeast into factories to produce on-demand chemicals and fuels; and to develop methods to reverse any threats posed by gene drives. (Gene drives are a mechanism, both natural and human-induced, that drives genetic traits through a population, in some instances to suppress a population.)

These programs represent a new and controversial approach to leveraging the natural world—one that, in essence, militarizes the environment.  The technologies that emerge will not only be a big deal for the innovations they will bring, but also for the legal and ethical lines they may cross. Many of these projects are strictly for defense, rather than offense, but given the size of the budgets here, the U.S. military investment makes up a rather large portion of the money in synthetic biology research. It’s possible, then, that DARPA’s work is bending the entire field of synthetic biology toward military applications.

Before 2008, the federal government invested basically negligible amounts in synthetic biology. But between 2008 and 2014, it poured approximately $819 million into synbio research. Since 2012, the majority of that funding came not from the budgets of civilian organizations like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, but from DARPA and other Defense Department initiatives. DARPA created at least five programs, most of which are now housed at its Biological Technologies Office, that demonstrate the agency’s interest in ecological manipulations.

At first, DARPA focused on developing organisms that can create materials, fuel, and other chemical compounds. DARPA launched its first synthetic biology program, Living Foundries, in 2013. It seeks to “increase the speed of the biological design-build-test-learn cycle” in order to create hundreds of new molecules that can be used for manufacturing biological products ranging from antibiotics to super-strong building materials.

In subsequent years, the organization began taking a slightly different path. First, it added Biological Robustness in Complex Settings, a program designed to overcome a major synthetic biology obstacle: Most synthetically designed organisms don’t live or function very well outside of highly controlled conditions, let alone in the natural environment. DARPA also created Safe Genes, which focuses on creating gene drives—a technology that promotes inheritance of specific traits in a species that can be safely introduced or combatted in the environment. (For example, researchers are looking into creating gene drives that will make it impossible for mosquitoes to spread certain diseases.) The program aims to study predictable and reversible gene editors and other measures that might counter undesirable outcomes.

Then there’s the Insect Allies program, which aims to use advanced biotechnologies to engineer insects that can help protect crops from naturally occurring or intentionally designed pathogens. And in late 2016, DARPA issued a call-out for academics to submit grant proposals to develop ecological niche-preference engineering technologies, which would “enable the genetic engineering of an organism’s preference for a niche (e.g., temperature, range, food source, and habitat)” in order to lessen their “economic, health, and resource burdens.” Imagine an agricultural pest that has a niche, or preference, for a particular crop. Maybe the leaves of that plant produce a certain chemical compound that the pest is attracted to, or the flower gives off an appealing scent. If you could engineer the insect to change its “niche preference” for that particular trait, or change the crop to prevent that niche from being produced, you could reduce the impact that insect has because it will have lost its niche.

So why is DARPA making investments in synthetic biology?

DARPA clearly states that the existing initiatives focus on countering biological threats (be it from nation-states, rogue actors, or possibly “mistakes” from other scientific research), and I don’t doubt they serve this need. However, the optics of these programs are problematic on a number of fronts, particularly because of who is funding them. If we agree that agriculture is under threat from biological attacks “either naturally occurring or are intentionally designed and released to cause harm,” as the Insect Allies program states, then why not have the Agricultural Department lead this program? If the government is concerned about the threats posed by gene drives, then why isn’t the National Science Foundation or the Environmental Protection Agency funding the Safe Genes research? Because the U.S. is funding these initiatives through the Department of Defense, rather than a civilian organization, it’s not hard to see how some in the international community may perceive these as potential bioweapons programs, rather than investments in purely defensive technologies. After all, if the U.S. is able to engineer an insect to carry a virus for protective purposes, it wouldn’t be hard to engineer that same insect to carry a deadly virus for offensive ones. It’s a classic dual-use technology scenario.

The possible dual use of these technologies has the potential to trigger international treaties. While the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention do have some bearing on biotechnologies, the Environmental Modification Convention, or ENMOD, may be more relevant, particularly in relation to gene drives. The 1978 agreement prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification techniques with widespread, enduring, or otherwise severe effects (think changes in weather patterns, ocean currents, or ecological balance). It followed a U.S. call to ban the use of environmental or geophysical manipulation as a weapon of war. Which, notably, the American military had done before when it used the insecticide DDT to prevent the spread of illnesses during World War II and when it used Agent Orange (an early DARPA creation) and attempted to control the weather during the Vietnam War. Despite its age, the agreement’s aims and definitions seem to capture the manipulations inherent in many of DARPA’s modern synthetic biology programs, particularly the Safe Genes and ecological niche-preference engineering programs. The ENMOD does allow for peaceful uses of environmental modification techniques; however, provisions in the treaty allow a party to pause activities of another country in order to clarify the nature of activities suspected to be in violation of the convention. While the parties to the convention have not met since 1992, the provisions of the treaty could provide ammunition for another country to slow down or halt suspect initiatives—especially since the U.S. is a party to the ENMOD, but not to some other relevant international treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is currently negotiating international governance strategies around synthetic biology.

While these DARPA initiatives state they never intend to create offensive weapons, which I believe is true, the programs may still have the effect of militarizing the synthetic biology field.  Since the largest proportion of funding for advanced biotechnologies, such as gene drives, appears to come from American defense agencies, researchers who depend on grants for their research may reorient their projects to fit the narrow aims of these military agencies.

Take, for instance, DARPA’s Safe Genes program. While some private organizations, such as the Gates Foundation–funded Target Malaria project, also back work related to the safe and effective use of gene drives, there currently aren’t other federal research programs with a similar focus. Given the limited options, research groups or conservation organizations might choose to take funding from DARPA, since it offers one of the only avenues to advance this kind of environmentally focused synthetic biology work—even if they don’t have a say in how the defense organization chooses to use it. At this critical tipping point where synthetic biologists are learning how to manipulate entire ecosystems, the organizations shaping the development of this technology will likely direct the future of environmental conservation. Availability and access to funding drives innovation. If the majority of funding is coming from defense agencies, then the research and subsequent applications will be defense-related. While DARPA programs have resulted in nondefense-related applications (think GPS in your car and the internet), these were second to the primary goal. What if we flipped the primary goal and enabled the National Science Foundation or the Department of Agriculture to invest the same amount of money in these technologies as DARPA?

Society has yet to engage in a robust public dialogue about how we want—or don’t want—to use this emerging suite of biotechnologies, be it for conservation, broader societal benefit, or for military purposes. Nor have we discussed the ethical, philosophical, or environmental implications of permanently altering a genome, engineering a new species, or attempting to redesign an ecosystem. But with the advent of these military programs, have those decisions already been made for us? Keep in mind, too, that the aforementioned programs are just the publicly available ones—it’s safe to assume that DARPA has a host of synthetic biology research that’s currently classified. With hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and critical aspects of the natural environment under investigation, it’s a conversation we need to have now.

This article is part of the synthetic biology installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.