(NaturalNews) The Pentagon's secretive research and developmental unit has announced that it will create a new biotechnology division as a way to harness new engineering capabilities.
DARPA's new Biological Technologies Office (BTO) will "explore the increasingly dynamic intersection of biology and the physical sciences," a news release by the agency notes. "Its goals are to harness the power of biological systems by applying the rigorous tools of engineering and related disciplines, and to design next-generation technologies that are inspired by insights gained from the life sciences."
The agency had long studied biology prior to its launch of the BTO and has sought ways to incorporate biological systems into projects, but there had never been a specific division that was dedicated to biotechnology before now.
In its announcement, DARPA said all existing and future biotech research will become part of the newly created BTO.
Focus will be on three categories
"Now DARPA is poised to give unprecedented prominence to a field of research that can no longer be considered peripheral to technology's evolving nature. Starting today, biology takes its place among the core sciences that represent the future of defense technology," the news release says.
For now, the BTO will mostly handle projects already underway in the existing offices of Defense Sciences (DSO) and Microsystems Technology (MTO), CBS News reported. One of the newest projects is the Hand Proprioception & Touch Interfaces, or HAPTIX, program, which is an expanded version of DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics and Reliable Neural-Interface Technology programs.
As noted by CBS News:
Moving forward, projects will focus on three categories: the health and preparedness of military personnel, both in war zones and after returning home; the ability to harness biological systems and incorporate them into projects; and the ability to apply biological complexity at scale -- that is, following the organizational techniques of cells within an organism.
The first category includes on-going projects like the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program, which helps injured veterans restore lost function, and the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program, which seeks ways to protect soldiers against infectious diseases.
In addition, there is a continuing Biochronicity program which has been in existence for at least two years. The program enables researchers at Duke University to investigate the "role of time in biological functions" and "make it possible to manage the effects of time on human physiology."
The development of the new DARPA division makes it clear that the Pentagon believes biotechnology is becoming more important. That said, it is increasingly likely that more projects in the future will raise ethical questions, as DARPA acknowledged in its new release.
"Because BTO programs push the leading edge of science, they will sometimes be society's first encounter with the ethical, legal, or social dilemmas that can be raised by new biological technologies," it said.
'Biology is nature's ultimate innovator'
"The Biological Technologies Office will advance and expand on a number of earlier DARPA programs that made preliminary inroads into the bio-technological frontier," said director Geoff Ling in the release. "We've been developing the technological building blocks, we've been analyzing our results, and now we're saying publicly to the research and development community, 'We are ready to start turning the resulting knowledge into practical tools and capabilities.'"
In testimony to a congressional panel in March, the agency's chief, Arati Prabhakar, talked up the development of biotechnology.
"Biology is nature's ultimate innovator, and any agency that hangs its hat on innovation would be foolish not to look to this master of networked complexity for inspiration and solutions," he told the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
"Before BTO, DARPA had a handful of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and the like, interested in synthesizing their work but distributed across different offices," Ling said. "Now we're under one roof, so to speak, and looking to attract a new community of scholars, who will bring a host of new ideas at the intersection of traditional and emerging disciplines."