DARPA Gives MIT Lab $32 Million To Program Living Cells

Pushing synthetic biology to the next level

A student working in Voigt's lab

Still from video; MIT School of Engineering

Yesterday, the Broad Institute Foundry, a synthetic biology laboratory at MIT, announced its new contract with DARPA. The lab will receive $32 million for engineering cells to find better treatments for disease, make new biofuels, or create fabrics woven with life.

“Living cells are the ultimate engineering substrate. They are the most difficult thing out there to be able to control,” says Christopher Voigt, a professor of biomedical engineering and one of the lab’s co-founders, in a video. “Imagine being able to engineer a living cell that can navigate the human body, identify disease, and correct that disease. That requires that the cell be able to sense where they are in the body, be able to detect it, and deliver a therapeutic. And that’s something that biology, we know it can do. But we don’t know how to harness that as part of a medicine.”

The Foundry is one of many labs working to manipulate the DNA of bacteria and other types of cells to make certain molecules—researchers have created cells that can make wood or seashells, for example. The work has mostly been limited to simple organic molecules, and progress has been slow since it takes a while for DNA to be put into cells and for those cells to mature.

With the DARPA contract, the Foundry will be able to join forces with other academics working on synthetic biology and computer science, as well as companies in various industries “including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food, energy, agriculture, and biotechnology,” according to the press release.

What specifically DARPA hopes to gain from work done at the Foundry is vague. Two years ago, DARPA granted the lab $7 million in seed money to add increasingly complex and numerous genes to engineered organisms. The lab has already created hundreds of man-made nucleotides, and has even found a less resource-intensive way to make fertilizer.

While the press release states that the grant will enable the Foundry to "offer critical new products in human health, agriculture, and chemistry, and serve as a mechanism for tackling some of the big problems of the world," over the coming decades, it's not specific about what projects it will take on. Since DARPA is constantly on the lookout for new ways to hack human biology and create new materials for soldiers and artillery, it might not be too much of a stretch to speculate that medicine and biomaterials will be near the top of the lab's laundry list.