Bioethics Blogs

DARPA, Synthetic Biology and Human Germline Engineering

DARPA wants to change the world — again. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as it is rarely called, mostly focuses on national security and “game-changing military capabilities” but its range goes much wider. The agency boasts of its contributions to our high-tech society, including the Internet, GPS and even graphical interfaces. And now synthetic biology is becoming an important part of its agenda.

At the end of March, the agency released a 40-page report, Breakthrough Technologies for National Security [pdf]. As the press release summarizes, one of DARPA’s four current main areas for “strategic investments” is:

Harness Biology as Technology: To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics and related fields, DARPA in 2014 created its Biological Technologies Office, which has enabled a new level of momentum for the Agency’s portfolio of innovative, bio-based programs. DARPA’s work in this area includes programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neurotechnologies.

The report is basically a PR document. Skeptics such as Ed Hammond point to unaddressed risks of field releases and the engineering of vaccines; bioethicist Jonathan Moreno is concerned that DARPA doesn’t seem to take ethical advice seriously.

But there are those who are thrilled by the new vision: transhumanists. A well-reported article in February’s H+ (humanity-plus) magazine is triumphantly titled:

Biology is Technology — DARPA is Back in the Game With A Big Vision and It Is H+

The piece summarizes the agency’s ambition in this arena:

They’re out to revolutionize the practice and products of bio-science and along the way they are re-defining what it will mean to be human.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.