Battelle has won an Associated Contractor Agreement for a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) program. The aim is to build a field-deployable platform technology that quickly 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).
Battelle will examine blood samples from people known to have handled materials associated with biological, chemical, explosive, pesticide or herbicide contaminants and compare those results to control subjects who have not handled these materials to identify unique epigenome signatures.
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 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.
Whereas current forensic and diagnostic screening technologies only detect the immediate presence of contaminants, the envisioned ECHO technology would read someone’s epigenome from a biological sample even when other physical evidence has been erased.
“We’ll be developing methods to identify these signatures and how to interpret them for attribution—what did the person handle, when and for how long,” said Battelle Biologist and Principal Research Scientist Rachel Spurbeck, PhD, who is leading the effort. “This will even allow for diagnosing illnesses in individuals as a result of their exposure.”