IARPA-Funded Initiatives Could Thwart Biothreats.

Author:Machi, Vivienne
Position:News Briefs

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has enlisted Ginkgo Bioworks--a Boston-based synthetic DNA company--in several initiatives meant to get ahead of potential biological threats such as infectious disease outbreaks or even bioterrorism.

The agency recently awarded Ginkgo a prime contract for the finding engineered linked indicators, or FELIX program. The company will partner with Northrop Grumman to develop a tool that can help scientists better detect whether certain DNA sequences have been engineered, said Zach Smith, director of the government business unit at Ginkgo.

The tool would ideally be able to identify whether the most recent flu vaccine was less effective "because developers guessed a little wrong, or if it was engineered to mutate ever so slightly... where it was not the correct one anymore," Smith said.

"Right now, there isn't the capability to say, 'Is this biological sample wild or engineered?' So that is a pretty significant capability gap," he added.

The 42-month program, which began in late June, will seek to leverage Ginkgo Bioworks' experience developing a large database of engineered DNA sequences, and Northrop Gramman's deep learning technologies to create a tool that can analyze a sample on site using standard hardware already used in hospitals and forward-deployed laboratories, Smith noted.

Ginkgo is also a participant in IARPA's functional genomic and computational assessment of threats, or Fun GCAT program. Together with a team that includes Twist Bioscience, a synthetic DNA...

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