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Wyss Institute Awarded $3.7 Million from DARPA to Develop Genetic Security System

New technology would provide bacterial background check to enhance biological security and safety

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced today that it has been awarded a $3.7 million contract (including option) from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a genetic security system that would track an organism’s history.

The proposed DNA-based memory device would sit inside a bacterium and create a permanent record of its historical experiences in much the same way as the "Track Changes" feature of word-processing software records successive edits in an electronic document. Such a bacterial background check would be analogous to biological forensic tools, such as fingerprint analysis, DNA testing, and blood typing.

The DARPA project will be led by Wyss Institute core faculty member Pamela Silver, who is a professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and the first Director of Harvard’s Program in Systems Biology. Co-Principal Investigators will be James Collins, also a Wyss Institute core faculty member as well as professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, and Jason Kelly, a founder and Principal Scientist at the Boston-based startup Ginkgo Bioworks.

The project team is charged with overseeing development of a bacterial memory system that actively reports on and tracks the history and status of an organism, providing information on its specific experiences, such as exposure to an antibiotic. This type of tracking system could protect commodity biomanufacturing by tracking the theft of proprietary bacterial strains that have been metabolically engineered to produce high-value products, such as biofuels or chemicals. It could also enhance the security of bacteria that are being studied in laboratory settings and discourage the misuse of dangerous biological pathogens.

The device would need to be robust enough to function in the field, while also maintaining accurate historical records in the face of a wide range of environmental stresses, including the death of the bacterium that it is charged with tracking. "This would be one of the first DNA-based memory systems to accurately track bacteria and it represents just the kind of challenging — and potentially game-changing — work that we do best here at the Wyss Institute," said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, MD, Ph.D. "We are happy to collaborate with DARPA in creating a new way to help ensure that bacterial strains created for science and industry are not misused in ways that could harm people or endanger our access to important products."

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