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Uncle Sam's Science

The US Department of Defense has become one of the biggest funders of synthetic biology research through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is funding projects that use biology to produce new materials, fuels, and medicines, says Nature's Erica Check Hayden at Discover magazine's The Crux blog. The California Institute of Technology's Eric Klavins dropped robotics research funded by the DoD because he felt uncomfortable with the possible applications of his work — but, after going into synthetic biology, Klavins may have found DARPA waiting for him, Check Hayden says.

The Office of Naval Research is also funding synthetic biology work. "And while most DoD-funded projects so far have not specifically focused on military applications, that can't be said of a recent 'statement of need' that asked synthetic biologists for their ideas on how the technology could be used to make greener explosives," Check Hayden adds.

So far, however, most synthetic biologists seem "largely unconcerned" about the military funding, she says. As many point out, the military has refrained from suggesting possible applications for the researchers' work. In addition, military funding often comes in when more "traditional" and "conservative" agencies like the US National Institutes of Health "have largely declined to fund the field," Check Hayden says.

Still, some — like Klavins — are wary. They argue that it may only be a matter of time before the military begins to ask synthetic biologists for more targeted results. "So far, Klavins is a relatively lone voice in the wilderness," Check Hayden says. "But that may change as more of his colleagues find themselves staring at the ceiling in the wee hours of the dawn, pondering questions about applications of their research that they had never imagined."

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