Saturday, October 16, 2004

DARPA Defense Sciences Office - Biological Input/Output Systems

DARPA Defense Sciences Office - Biological Input/Output Systems:
"Programmable Sensory Neuron
California Institute of Technology
Principal Investigator: Dr. Paul W. Sternberg

The major goal of this project is to develop C. elegans as a test bed for engineering robust components of biological circuits. C. elegans is ideally suited for such in vivo engineering as the anatomy and development of all its cells are known, and it has a transparent body. Thus, a single cell embedded in the whole animal can be treated much as individual E. coli or yeast cells are treated. With this ability, Caltech plans to engineer genetic circuits in a pair of sensory neurons of C. elegans that can respond to specific molecules in a novel and significant way, for example, by producing green fluorescent protein (GFP). New methods and tools will be developed in this endeavor, such as innovative design principles and robust components and modules for programming individual neurons. These tools can be applied towards future efforts in multicellular genetic engineering."

The Sternberg Lab at Caltech site that DARPA links to is startlingly uninformative, with a warm-fuzzy photo of schoolchildren on the home page, and a happy photo of a worm sculpture on the research page. Sternberg's page includes links to his other research pages, at Caltech Biology and at HHMI.

There's one wee paragraph about the DARPA research on C. elegans circuitry on the HHMI page:
"We have started to adapt bacterial and yeast proteins for use in C. elegans and to construct circuits to help analyze and alter development and behavior (supported by a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)."

How very vague and mysterious this all is! What might "future efforts in multicellular genetic engineering" and biological circuits to "alter development and behavior" entail? Inducing production of fluorescent proteins in worms is one thing, but I wonder what might be the envisioned "human combat performance" technology to come out of this?


Blogger Meshon said...

My first guess would be enhanced night vision without an external aid. I remember back in the 80's reading about grids of electrodes being inserted directly into the brain of a visually-impaired person. By stimulating the electrodes a rough analogy of vision could be created, somewhat like the old-style light bulb array marquee at a soccer stadium. At the time the scientists thought they would be able to increase the density of electrodes (thus increasing visual resolution), and feed data from a small digital camera located in a false eye or a pair of sunglasses. I immediately thought you could probably use an infrared camera and see in the dark. Now it seems like there might not be a need for an external system.

From what I can tell, they're talking about biological switches, which means biological computers. If I could get a couple terabytes of hard-drive space in my head I could sure do well on my French exams!

11:50 AM  

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