darpa’s new project tackles immortality

February 14, 2010

I have a special soft spot for the military’s mad science lab, DARPA. Not only did they help give birth to a space program which landed humans on another world and is exploring the outer edge of our solar system, but they tackle the kind of bizarre, curiosity driven projects that have the potential to revolutionize our world as we know it. In this case, the mad scientists on its payroll are wondering if they could one-up evolution and create a new type of life: designed life forms which have no limits on their lifespan, and could be hardwired to follow the commands of human generals without question. Wait a second. Isn’t this how every other horror movie on the SyFy channel usually starts? Military tries to create super-soldier, experiment goes terribly wrong, the creature goes stalking a top secret underground military base picking off the humans who have to fight for their lives?

Between robotic soldiers, evil zombie pigs, and now, a full on synthetic biology program being funded with a total of some $27.5 million for pilot projects and developing new technologies for deciphering genomes, one would think that DARPA is either looking for the best way to speed up the apocalypse, or play God. But while this kind of stuff might make for great headline on Popular Science or Wired’s Danger Room and an excited write-up in the Singularitarian magazine H+, what we’re getting here seems to be a very diluted version of a much more complicated story. It’s not that DARPA isn’t aiming high as always, but there’s a major problem in creating synthetic life and it’s a very different one than we see in pop culture. Rather than worry about custom- made berserker germs, we should keep in mind that synthetic life stitched together in a lab would either lack the survival abilities in our microbe-eat-microbe world, or be unable to handle the kind of mutations which are the hallmark of the last 3.5 billion years of evolution and lead to today’s diverse and incredibly tough bacteria. Simply put, designed life forms won’t do well in a mutating, random, evolving world. As noted by biologist David Fitch in Wired’s report of the concept…

They may want to rethink the idea of evolution as a random series of events. Evolution by selection is not a random process at all, and is actually a hugely efficient design algorithm used extensively in computation and engineering.

The other problem is making living things immortal. The closest thing to biological immortality in nature is an odd jellyfish known as Turritopsis nutricula, which can turn back into its adolescent stage after hitting sexual maturity. It’s kind of like a human living into his or her 50s or 60s, then turning back into a little kid and doing it all over again. If someone working on this project could figure out how to actually accomplish this feat, or learn how to replace aging tissues and organs with stem cells that would differentiate into whatever biological form we need, that would be an absolutely incredible leap in life extension. However both of these life extension or immortality techniques are byproducts of evolution, so it seems unlikely that DAPRA actually wants to dispose of the evolutionary algorithm in its experiments as suggested by some of the bloggers reporting on this story. And while we should be skeptical about the ability of synthetic life surviving outside a laboratory, or a magical immortality elixir coming out of this project, there could be some potentially exciting concepts about extending lives through advanced biology coming from one of DARPA’s mad science experiments…

[ illustration by James Knowles ]

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  • DamianD

    The point about evolution not being a random process is a good one, and will play heavily into their chances of success. I’m more intrigued by the jellyfish you mention, which I had never heard of before. Finding a way to infuse new stem cell based organic material into the body to replace the aging cellular base that is there would certainly be a huge step toward extending human lives to incredible lengths, but I have to ask a few questions there…

    Would finding a way to do so successfully lower the chances of an individual developing cancer (which is pretty much an inevitability if you live long enough) or could it simply be used to treat cancer? Would this process be usable on the human brain? And if it worked, would it alter the physical dimensions of the brain in any way? Would that change our personalities? Our memories? If the brain can’t be treated with a process like this, wouldn’t problems like dementia as you get into your 90’s and beyond still be there? And if so, what’s the point of living to 150 or 200 if you don’t have all your faculties available?

    I realize you weren’t claiming that creating a process that borrows from the experience of that species of jellyfish would be a simple matter or that it is even possible. But once we find a way to start extending human life well beyond it’s natural limits, a lot of questions do start popping up.

  • RaggMopp

    As far as I recall from Biology 601, jelly fish are colonies of individual, independent, cells, like coral reefs.

    They’re not considered a single organism. That ought to throw a kink in the project you discuss above. But then Mitochondria are not part of our organism either, even tho we can’t live without them. This is really weird science.

  • The closest thing to biological immortality in nature is an odd jellyfish known as Turritopsis nutricula, which can turn back into its adolescent stage after hitting sexual maturity.

    There are several other examples, including hydra and perhaps turtles. Read my article on this at h+ magazine.

    Raggmop, jellyfish are single organisms. That’s why they’re part of kingdom Animalia.

  • Greg Fish


    There’s still a lot of research to be done on the organisms you mention as you say in your article and the problem is that one study recording what seemed to be random patterns of death in hydras leave me skeptical. Curious, but skeptical. There may be other factors influencing hydra mortality in that experiment. As for turtles, animals with an incredibly slow metabolism could be expected to live for a very long time. But they still die and hence, very difficult to qualify as biologically immortal. This is why I chose the Turritopsis nutricula as the closest example of immortality in nature.

    jellyfish are single organisms. That’s why they’re part of kingdom Animalia.

    Yes. More specifically they belong to the class Scyphozoa. The often cited example of a jellyfish colony, the Portuguese Man of War, is really a vast collection of specialized siphonophores, which belong to the class Hydrozoa. Siphonophores look like jellies when they’re in a colony, but they’re actually their evolutionary cousins.