DARPA to ECHO Your Genes

DARPA’s new Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program has the ability to check your epigenetic markers.  Just as tree rings provide a history of environmental factors encountered by tree, this will be the equivalent, providing a detailed history of signature exposures  creating a Chain-of-Evidence.  These signatures could be transient or low concentrations of biological or chemical traces that are on your clothing or your body.  ECHO would be a handheld device that could provide anyone access to your personal epigenetic signatures in under 30 minutes.

The platform technology reads:

Someone’s epigenome and identifies signatures that indicate whether that person has ever—in his or her lifetime—been exposed to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  

You may think that you have nothing to hide, but the truth of the a matter is,  we are constantly being exposed to chemicals and other items that may be considered a threat, such as fertilizers, rubbing alcohol, and the list goes on.

The epigenome is biology’s record keeper. Though DNA does not change over a single lifetime, a person’s environment may leave marks on the DNA that modify how that individual’s genes are expressed. This is one way that people can adapt and survive in changing conditions, and the epigenome is the combination of all of these modifications. Though modifications can register within seconds to minutes, they imprint the epigenome for decades, leaving a time-stamped biography of an individual’s exposures that is difficult to deliberately alter. Some instances are if you dye your hair, have a particular diet, or use common every day things like bleach or fabric softeners.

Forensic and diagnostic tools are extremely limited but DARPA envisions ECHO technology could read your epigenome by taking a simple finger prick if your blood or a nasal swab.  The device will then track the evidence of any exposure precursors long after physical evidence has been erased.  You may not even recall years down the road that you planted your vegetables in a fertilizer-of-interest, which is now considered a weapon.

“The human body registers exposures and logs them in the epigenome,” explained Eric Van Gieson, the ECHO program manager. “We are just beginning to understand this rich biographical record that we carry around with us. We hope that with the capabilities developed within ECHO, someone in the field will immediately know if a suspected adversary has handled or been exposed to threat agents."

The same technology could also serve as a diagnostic tool to diagnose infectious disease and the potential exists to use it as a vaccination record.

DARPA is in the process of identifying epigenetic signatures and creating the handheld device to identify them.

ECHO technology would make it possible, “to deploy an analytical capability to vastly more locations, we would enhance our ability to conduct global, near-real-time surveillance of emerging threats,” said Van Gieson.

The ability to partially reconstruct an individual’s history through analysis of the epigenome, however, could have application well beyond national security and thus raise privacy concerns. Accordingly, DARPA intends to proactively engage with several independent ethical and legal experts to help inform the Agency’s research plans, think through potential issues, and foster broader dialogue in the scientific community on social implications.