great potential for the Department of Defense. DARPA has been involved in the emergence of new fields (e.g., computing in the 1960s and materials in the 1970s), and the agency believes it can play a similar supporting role in new developments in biotechnology and microsystems. DARPA plans to move broadly into the area of biotechnology and microsystems, as opposed to focused technology initiatives that are often how DARPA pursues technology development.

The combined thrust of biology, chemistry, physics, and information technology is therefore very exciting for DARPA. But it requires true collaboration among disciplines on new problems, not simply the juxtaposition of physicists and biologists in the same lab. The objective is to find the places where the fields are strongest and the likelihood for meaningful impact on important problems is the greatest. The hope is to foster synergy that creates a whole greater than the sum of the parts. Moreover, there are already “interesting things brewing” at the intersection of biology and information technologies—a number of foundations, for example, are funding research in this area. DARPA wants to help the field attain a critical mass so that research programs can really take off. DARPA also understands that many young people are enthusiastic about the field, and by investing early, the agency can help develop a pipeline of talent in the field.

Current DARPA Initiatives

DARPA already has activities under way at the intersection of biotechnology and computing. The “electronic dog’s nose” initiative—the ability for canines to sniff out explosives—tries to understand that process at a very high level of sophistication. The objective is to develop electronic devices that can perform this task as well as dogs.

DARPA is also working in the area of controlled biological and biomedical systems. This involves interfacing directly with living creatures, such as insects, and altering them at the larval stage. For a certain type of wasp, for instance, exposure to specific vapors in the larval stage will enable it to detect explosives when it develops into an adult. DARPA is also considering having insects carry electronic chips, so that their hunting patterns become search algorithms for DoD sensors.

DARPA is also funding R&D in tissue-based biosensors. The agency is exploring whether cells and tissues can be used to detect toxins in the environment. This can enable certain cells to determine whether something is dangerous and alert people to the danger before it is too severe. Other initiatives involve DNA computing, microfluidics (i.e., how to move organic materials around on a chip), and diagnostics for biological warfare agents.

These DARPA programs are focused technology initiatives, but the agency also believes that it has to look at some fundamental scientific questions as well. DARPA has labeled this area of inquiry “Biofutures.” Exploring how biology



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement