Surveillance at the genetic level: Is it possible?

DARPA wants to track genes in bacteria and viruses

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking technologies to track gene changes in bacteria and viruses.

DARPA announced its solicitation in mid-March and held a workshop on the project, called Chronicle of Lineage Indicative of Origins (CLIO), last week.

The technology would be used to protect intellectual property — microbes and genes can be patented — and track dangerous pathogens for public health reasons. It would be built into the microorganism's genome. In a March 29 article, PopSci.com described the technology as a password-protected genome.

“A tool like CLIO would help protect patented genes from misuse as well as to help competitors prove that they are not infringing on another lab’s" intellectual property, PopSci.com reported. "DARPA also wants CLIO to devise a way to encrypt a genome so it can’t be stolen by rival researchers or (and now perhaps we get to the heart of the DOD’s interest) rival states.”

However, experts are skeptical. PopSci.com describes the project as way out there, and Discover magazine has a similar opinion: off the wall. Additionally, Discover noted that gene patenting is controversial and thus not likely to be a popular idea.

How the technology will work is up in the air. According to DARPA, its focus could be mathematical or biological. “DARPA is specifically interested in transdiscipline teams with expertise in mathematical disciplines associated with encryption, epigenetics and epigenetic control, genetic control elements, and synthetic biology,” the agency noted in its workshop announcement.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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