Synthetic biologists weigh using defense funding

The U.S. Department of Defense recently requested that synthetic biologists seek more environmentally friendly means of developing explosives, causing a debate about the field’s reliance on defense funding.

In transforming microbes into miniature chemical factories, synthetic biologists could help create cheaper medicines, greener fuels and, to the distress of some, cleaner weapons, according to Nature.com.

“We need to figure out what the right relationship is between the worlds of defense and synthetic biology,” Drew Endy, a bioengineer at Stanford University, said, Nature.com reports.

A recent statement from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, a partnership between the DOD, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calls for the eventual replacement of chemical methods to make explosives by adapting biological systems. The idea of "green explosives" has sparked a broader debate.

“I can’t look my kids in the eyes and tell them my ideas are being tossed around by generals," Eric Klavins, a synthetic biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said, Nature.com reports. "I’d rather they were thrown around by doctors or global-health researchers.”

Synthetic biologists have been struggling to get support from traditional biology funders like the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The NIH and others tend to regard the field as more of an engineering discipline than one that is biology related.

Until now, few of the military investments in synthetics have been targeted at offensive applications. The green explosives call, however, is unmistakable and may push the field to decide whether or not it is ready to follow other academic engineering disciplines, such as robotics, that have become heavily reliant on military money.

“This could provide a good opportunity for the field to debate within itself whether this is a good direction to go in,” Roger Brent of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle said, Nature.com reports.

Organizations in this story

U.S. Department of Defense 2 N Rotary Rd Arlington, VA 22202

National Institutes of Health 9000 Rockville Pike Bethesda, MD 20892

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