darpa’s new project tackles immortality

DARPA's new moonshot experiment sounds like a recipe for invincible monsters straight out of a B horror movie.

alien cell

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…

# science // biology / evolution / immortality / scientific research

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