Immortal Synthetic Organisms

Synthetic organisms brought to you by Darpa. The organization, according to an article in Wired Magazine’s Danger Room pentagon-looks-to-breed-immortal-synthetic-organisms-molecular-kill-switch-included has set aside $6 million dollars in the budget into a project called BioDesign that “Darpa is looking to re-write the laws of evolution to the military’s advantage, creating “synthetic organisms” that can live forever — or can be killed with the flick of a molecular switch.”.

Darpa is dabbling in a field known as Synthetic Biology. This is a new area of biological research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build (“synthesize”) novel biological functions and systems. Darpa’s goal with this project is to eliminate the randomness or evolution by engineering an organism.Part of the plan is to “bolster cell resistance to death” by the use of fortified molecules.

To keep the organism from being swayed by the enemy, Darpa plans to build loyalty right into the DNA. There is also a plan for a “kill switch” so that if the organism *does* get out of hand, they can eliminate it before it kills everyone. Now normally this idea would be out of reach. However, as part of their budget, they are also spending ” $7.5 million to “increasing by several decades the speed with which we sequence, analyze and functionally edit cellular genomes.”.

Darpa is missing one vital clue. NYU biology professor David Fitch says, “Evolution by selection is nota random process at all, and is actually a hugely efficient design algorithm used extensively in computation and engineering,” Even if they DO manage to overcome the time issue for sequencing genomes and the evolutionary issue, there is still cell death. Current measures have only increased lifespan in rats by 20%.

But suppose gene therapy makes major strides, and Darpa does manage to get the evolutionary science right. They’ll also have a major ethical hurdle to jump. Synthetic biology researchers are already facing the same questions, as a 2009 summary from the Synthetic Biology Project reports:

The concern that humans might be overreaching when we create organisms that never before existed can be a safety concern, but it also returns us to disagreements about what is our proper role in the natural world (a debate largely about non-physical harms or harms to well-being).


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