DARPA seeks to track genetic changes, protect patented genes

The Pentagon seeks to track changes in microbes to protect the IP of patented genes by monitoring against tampering -- and evolution itself.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense's research arm, posted a solicitation earlier this month seeking a method and technology that can be used to track changes in a microorganism.

The official notice:

This solicitation is specifically for multidisciplinary research proposals in the area of genomic and proteomic technologies that can continuously and persistently record specific natural or human promulgated environmental, physical and genomic events within the genetic or epigenetic systems of microorganisms.

That may be Greek to some, but Madhumita Venkataramanan takes a crack at it over at Wired's Danger Room blog:

Sounds to me like Darpa wants to create a digital spy technology that is encoded into the genes of a living bug. It will apparently record and report on any modifications being made to the bug itself – kind of like the Track Changes option in your Word document.

In the full solicitation, DARPA comes right out with it, saying that it seeks to monitor changes in organisms with patented genes -- of their own design, and of other research organizations'. (The program's official name: "Chronicle of Lineage Indicative of Origins.")

Bits from the solicitation:

  • The program "seeks to enhance biological security and the protection of genomic intellectual property in the global biocommodities community."
  • It seeks to develop "safe and secure systems for encoding non-hereditary events into the genome of viruses and prokaryotes."
  • And the reason: to "enable the protection and authentication of intellectual property in high value organisms, ensuring compliance with agreements during licensure for foreign manufacturing and exoneration of laboratories, institutions, and states in incidents involving misuse."
  • It will do that via the capability to "record information and potentially to report on environmental events during research or commercial activities."

Among the events DARPA seeks to record? Growth conditions, cell metabolism, division, genetic manipulation such as introduction of antibiotic resistance, animal passage or large-scale growth.

The agency suggests that the answer lies in a "cryptographical or complex mathematical approach" -- one that can't be altered by evolution or modification -- incorporated into a microbe's metabolic or genomic processes.

Hey, you never know: the next Cold War could be fought at the genetic level. Is that a Russian gene in my soup?

In all seriousness, however, the solicitation is interesting because of how it impacts the highly contentious debate over genetic patents: who can have them, who can profit from them, and to what degree scientists can play God, Mother Nature or both-- as creator and natural legislator.

DARPA appears to suggest that there could be a way to record change in these organisms -- not an easy task for something that's fundamentally designed to continually adapt.

[Danger Room via PopSci]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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