The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just awarded a five-year $32 million contract to the Foundry as part of the agency's program known as "Living Foundries: 1000 Molecules."
The said program aims to establish facilities where scientists can rapidly engineer cells as a way of producing chemicals and materials which are otherwise not produced naturally.
"Society relies on many products from the natural world that have intricate material and chemical structures, from chemicals such as antibiotics to materials like wood," said Christopher Voigt, a biological engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "We've been limited in our ability to program living cells to redesign these products. I want to change the scale of genetic engineering to access anything biology can do."
Two years ago, the Foundry started to work on a project that focused on the assembly of massive genetic systems wherein a number of genes are involved. The facility is formed as a result of a joint venture by Broad Technology Labs and MIT's Synthetic Biology Center where Voigt is a co-director. It earned a total of $7 million in seed funding from DARPA.
In order for it to meet its goal with the needed efficiency and technological innovation, the Foundry has sought to work in collaboration with partners from the academic and industry sectors. One of its academic partners is associate professor Michael Fischbach of the University of California in San Francisco.
"The Foundry has made it possible to do something that used to be a figment of my imagination," said Fischbach.
Another collaboration was made with consortium member DSM, a Dutch multinational company on biotech and materials. The joint effort resulted in the design and delivery of synthetic DNA that measured up to 6 million nucleotides, almost equal to two bacterial genomes.
"The Foundry is at the forefront of synthetic biology developments," said Hans Roubos, the principal bioinformatics scientist at DSM.
It should be remembered that in 2013, DARPA launched a solicitation effort for the project "Advanced Tools for Mammalian Genome Engineering." More than just being focused on the engineering of any mammal's genome, the project was specifically launched for the bioengineering of humans.
"The successful development of technologies for rapid introduction of large DNA vectors into human cell lines will enable the ability to engineer much more complex functionalities into human cell lines than are currently possible," states the project's proposal page.
In other words, DARPA, for several years now, has been trying to defy what nature can offer by finding ways to solve the limitations of the current gene transfer technologies and how to improve existing approaches in order for science to finally displace natural life.