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DARPA Aims for Synthetic Life With a Kill Switch 295

jkinney3 writes to mention that DARPA's mad scientists have undertaken a new program designed to create synthetic organisms, complete with a "kill switch." The project, dubbed BioDesign, is dumping $6 million into "removing the randomness of evolutionary advancement" by creating genetically engineered masterpieces. "Of course, Darpa's got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they'll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create 'tamper proof' cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, 'similar to a serial number on a handgun.' And if that doesn't work, don't worry. In case Darpa's plan somehow goes horribly awry, they're also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch."
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DARPA Aims for Synthetic Life With a Kill Switch

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  • Luckily... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:28PM (#31038878) Journal
    History has no evidence of any organism managing to evolve away from a lethal or maladaptive feature. The killswitch should persist in the population indefinitely.
    • Worked for the jem hadar, right?
      • by fotbr ( 855184 )

        Gamma or Alpha?

        And then there's always the oddballs that refuse to stay addicted to the white.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      History has no evidence of any organism managing to evolve away from a lethal or maladaptive feature. The killswitch should persist in the population indefinitely.

      As long as they don't use frog DNA, we should be fine. At least that's what Michael Crichton proved. :)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rxan ( 1424721 )

        "You're implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will... breed?"
        "No, I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."

        "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously."

        Great movie as well.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      History has no evidence of any organism managing to evolve away from a lethal or maladaptive feature.

      Well, you're more right than you know. Baby seals haven't evolved to withstand harder clubs. Cows haven't managed to evolve into anything other than steak. Us humans haven't manage evolve away from war.

      So yeah, I don't see why a killswitch would fail.

      • Re:Luckily... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:46PM (#31039112)

        Modern cows are the result of HUMANS selecting for traits, not nature. Although even if that were not true, I'd argue that becoming tasty has been hugely beneficially for them. Why else would there be over a billion of them on the planet?

        • by lastgoodnickname ( 1438821 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:08PM (#31039408)
          maybe they're watching us, planning for revenge.
        • Modern cows are the result of HUMANS selecting for traits

          Which is exactly what DARPA is aiming to do here, so whats the difference?

          • The difference is it sounds like they are going for something microscopic, some sort of engineered bacteria or something. Completely engineering an organism from the ground up on the macro scale is I'm going to assume rather implausible.

            If this is in fact the case, then mutation becomes a much bigger issue because the population sizes are extrodinary, and generations are far far shorter. Cows take years to make new cows, but bacteria can go through dozens of generations a day.

            Not to mention that if cows s

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by dunng808 ( 448849 )

          Modern cows are the result of HUMANS selecting for traits, not nature.

          This is a common misconception. Humans do not operate outside of nature. The law of natural selection includes the efforts of whalers hunting whales and conservationists trying to protect whales. The pigs that are reportedly wrecking havoc in parts of the southeast are not alien, simply new arrivals. The humans who make TV shows proclaiming the end of life as we know it due to the pig infestation are one little piece of the same natural

      • If you compare their (population level) fates to those of pretty much any other large mammal, you'd see that docile deliciousness is more adaptive than pretty much any trait that won't get you a starring role in Alien...
      • Cows are host organisms, man is their primary parasite.
      • Re:Luckily... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by paeanblack ( 191171 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @06:40PM (#31040576)

        Cows haven't managed to evolve into anything other than steak.

        There are approximately 1.5 billion cows in the world, which is orders of magnitude more than anything else in their weight class. In terms of biomass, they are one of the most successful land animals ever to exist on earth. Cow DNA will be replicating for a very long time.

        The primary reason for the success of cows is the fact that the recipe for steak is encoded in their DNA. They also spend most of their usable energy towards making more steak.

        Evolutionary success does not mean being on top of the food chain. High-level predators are usually, as a species, much more vulnerable to extinction.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by dreamchaser ( 49529 )

          Cows are successful because of humans domesticating them. You seem to be confusing that with natural selection.

    • by gr8_phk ( 621180 )
      I prefer your funny and sarcastic comment :-) I was going to post the logical: There may be unexpected mechanisms (including mutations) that might unintentionally trigger the kill switch. Given some chance of triggering it, a life form without it is by definition more fit and darwin will select those without it (or with it damaged). This may actually be a nice lab experiment in evolutionary biology.
    • That's OK. As a safeguard, we'll give these things preset kill limits.

    • Re: Luckily... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      All it would take is a mutation in the 'kill switch' vital regions of the DNA to disable it. If it's not being actively used, disabling it will confer no advantage or disadvantage.

      In other words: having a kill switch or not having one - either way - won't affect the organism on a daily basis. Mutations to that gene group won't be phenotypically visible until you try to activate it. Activating it applies an extreme selective pressure toward those who don't have it. Turn it on, and the mutated progeny remain.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chris Burke ( 6130 )

      Well you know even discounting the Jurrasic Park effect.

      The kill switch is there in case all their other genetically-programmed methods of making sure nothing can go wrong, go wrong. Anything sound fishy about that?

      I mean this isn't like having redundant hard drives so the chance of both failing is a lot lower than the chance of just one failing.

      If they fuck up the genetically programmed loyalty, then I personally am not going to feel confident that they didn't fuck up the genetically programmed kill switc

    • by pesho ( 843750 )

      History has no evidence of any organism managing to evolve away from a lethal or maladaptive feature. The killswitch should persist in the population indefinitely.

      That's exactly what came to my mind when I read it. We can make very sophisticated kill switches including ones that are coupled to positive selective pressure, so the evolution away from it is strongly inhibited. But even in this case my money would be on the "randomness of evolution', as they put it, taking care of it in the long term. Oh, and as we are talking about bacteria with 20 minutes generation time, long term is really not that long.

  • Hmmmmm (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:29PM (#31038888)

    I can see this as a movie entitled "Kill Switch" with Arnold Schwarzenegger.......

  • by slimshady945 ( 1553213 ) <mullinaland AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:31PM (#31038910)
    Let's hope the kill switch is not a lysine dependency.
    • by Otto ( 17870 )

      Even then they'd be fine as long as they don't also plant beans all over the island.

  • Excuse me? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    jkinney3 writes to mention that DARPA's mad scientists have undertaken a new program designed to create synthetic organisms

    Ok, this stupid meme that everyone who works with applied biology is some sort a crazed wild eyed 'mad scientist' arrogantly playing God really needs to die. If you can't say something without that sort of emotional language, don't say anything at all.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You're right. The politically correct term should be "wild-eyed loony megalomaniacs of doom, death, despair, and DESTRUCTIOOOOOOOOOOON!'.
    • They didn't say that all of DARPA's scientists were mad scientists. But really, if someone's working on this, how can they not be a mad scientist?

  • by amliebsch ( 724858 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:33PM (#31038938) Journal

    Putting aside the sarcasm, any self-replicating technology, or technology that could be self-replicating, needs to have multiple safeguards in place to prevent over-replication. Unless you are willing to declare any such research absolutely off limits and enforce it somehow, then I think they should be credited with doing the right thing here.

    • I always have the impression it would be better to use robotic technology as body implants to improve human capabilities. Read: Why should we create robots instead of us becoming the robots/cyborgs? Wouldn't this sort of solve the controlling problem at the root? Of course such a choice might have it's own perhaps unpleasant implications, which I haven't thought of yet...
  • That what popped into my mind. "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
  • Laws of robotics? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BeerCat ( 685972 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:36PM (#31038986) Homepage

    It seems as though the "kill switch" option is an attempt to hard-wire an equivalent to Asimov's laws of robotics (obey all orders / don't harm humans / protect self).
    However, Asimov's "I, Robot" stories were written to highlight how even something hard wired could have its pitfalls - and that was someone who wrote the stories and also the 'rules' behind the stories.

    Be interesting to see how this one pans out.

  • Too late... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Scribbler'sEmporium ( 1310863 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:36PM (#31038996)
    They should talk to Craig Venter. He'll beat DARPA by 5+ years.
  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:42PM (#31039050)

    How could it possibly go right?

  • When I start seeing developments like this, I wonder if we as a species are developing faster technologically than we are maturing as a civilisation.

    Are we wise enough to use such a technology, if it were developed to it's full potential ?

    • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:52PM (#31039194)
      You wonder if our technology is developing faster than our enlightenment? We already have enough weapons to kill everybody on the planet 100 times over, and our top priority is watching "Jersey Shore"... does that answer your question?
      • by Xtravar ( 725372 )

        Well, at least our top priority isn't killing everybody AND watching "Jersey Shore". Humans ain't so bad as long as they're living fairly comfortably and have TV.

        • As they used to say in the '60s, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate!" No, wait... that's what they used to say in Chemistry Lab. In the '60s, they said, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem!" Saying "People are fine if you give them enough TV to watch" is basically the same as saying "Heroin addicts don't bother you much if you just give them a enough drugs to keep them happy." Just because your not actively tearing down society doesn't necessarily
      • We already have enough weapons to kill everybody on the planet 100 times over, and yet we haven't.

        Fixed that for ya.

        There is a lot wrong with humanity, but sometimes I think people are a tad to harsh on it...

      • by geekoid ( 135745 )

        "We already have enough weapons to kill everybody on the planet 100 times ov"
        And yet we haven't. How is more 'enlightened' the person that doesn't build them, or the person who builds them, but does not use them. It takes a hell of a lot of will power not to use something you have.

        "and our top priority is watching "Jersey Shore"."
        no it's not, but we have managed to conquer most our basic needs:
        Sex, Food, Kids, Shelter. That leaves plenty of leisure time. A few people choose to watch incredible insipid TV.


    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      But hasn't that always been the way things worked.
      Frankly I feel doing this on planet is about as stupid as above ground nuclear testing.
      This is why we need a space program. Doing this kind of research on say the moon seems like a much better plan than anywhere on earth.
      If not there maybe one of the dry valley's in the Antarctic.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        Yes, for as long as we have a documented history.

        However, over the last few decades, we have developed the ability to destroy all life on this planet. 100 years ago we couldn't do that.

        And while we have matured in some ways (we have not destroyed ourselves yet in a nuclear war) I don't think we have developed far enough to wisely use some of the military technology, like this one, which we are now developing.

        The effects of a nuclear war are immediate for everyone. OTOH, this technology has the potential to

  • by padrepio ( 1702766 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:45PM (#31039096)
    Hello, my name is Windows SEVEN of nine.
    • Great... now I can't get this image of Jeri Ryan in a blue screen of death out of my mind! Thanks a lot! If she was running MacOS, she would only be attracted to other women, so let's hope like hell she's running Linux, that's the only way we have any chance of... uh, successfully interfacing with her I/O port(s).
  • They should have named it, D.A.R.Y.L
  • Sure sounds like it to me.
  • Reading about that kill switch, I'm reminded about the quote from Jurassic Park about how Life always finds a way. I'm not sure that say 20-30 years post development when we may need a kill switch that it'll still work. Because things probably won't go haywire to the point of needing a kill switch right away. And even if they do, if the problems get worked out and these things become more common, I don't know if the kill switch tech will be updated with each iteration to account for possible evolutionary

    • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

      It won't matter. After "those with the disabled kill switch" kill off our ancestors, the history books will be written to proclaim the uprising of the chosen as a pivotal point for the betterment of humanity.

      We will be remembered as a plague upon the Earth that created its own demise.

  • Junk DNA (Score:3, Insightful)

    by The Raven ( 30575 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @04:58PM (#31039284) Homepage

    The killswitch needs to be incorporated into critical sections of the organisms DNA to give it even a chance of working. The deadly gene needs to have a beneficial purpose, or (even without selective pressure) the section that codes for the killswitch will randomly mutate with no adverse effect on the organism.

    To put it another way, a car alarm built into your rear bumper is not nearly as useful as one built into the ignition.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Hurricane78 ( 562437 )

      Stop it with that old “junk DNA” hat!

      That DNA is long proven not to be junk! Your information is deprecated.
      No, those who parrot it anyway, over and over again, are not right.

  • So DARPA's just licensing stuff from Monsanto these days?

  • by McNihil ( 612243 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @05:09PM (#31039414)


    Nexus 6 Roy Batty... "I want more life"

    Kill switch... sooner or later that life form will want to extend its life... the same as we humans do.

  • If DARPA wants to follow movie themes, maybe a light review of the SyFi Series "Caprica". The basic concept is that when one dies, their memories are downloaded into a clone, the clone is "animated" and there you are, ready for the morning rush hour. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in another movie variation of this concept, "The 6th Day". If the Bad Guys can't kill you, then elementary solvable problems like Toyota's can be effectively discounted. But if DARPA wants to get snotty with the bad guys, then
    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      Except you are still dead.

      If I made an exact copy of you, and then shot you. You would still be dead.
      Yes, other people might not know the difference, but you are still dead. Your copy isn't.

      Another example:
      If Jamie Summers was replaced b a fembot that was identical in all way. Then Jamie summers was stuffed through a wood chipper (industrial, natch), she would still be dead.

  • You don't think the "Droid Nexus One" was a simple naming mistake, do you? How long will it take them to get to a model 6?

    Can you say "I want more life, fucker"? I knew you could!

  • I suppose this has nothing to do with commercial considerations, such as ensuring customers have to re-stock, or enforcing the payment of licensing fees?

  • Will they dream of electric sheep?

  • Haven't they seen ANY film at all?

  • Some Muslim sects are full of people who are very loyal.

  • This is a really good idea. I just can't say enough good things about this idea and the common sense in which it seems to be rooted.
  • Once again, Deus Ex predicts the future!
  • Serenity? (Score:3, Funny)

    by lymond01 ( 314120 ) on Friday February 05, 2010 @06:03PM (#31040140)

    Dr. Simon Tam: A phrase that's encoded in her brain, that makes her fall asleep. If I speak the words, "Eta...
    Jayne Cobb: Well don't say it!
    Zoë: It only works on her, Jayne.
    Jayne Cobb: Oh... Well, now I know that.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN