The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded an Associated Contractor Agreement to Battelle for its Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) programme.

DARPA’s ECHO programme is designed to address the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and is focused on developing a man-portable device to potentially reveal WMD exposure.

Battelle will work on developing a technology capable of reading a person’s epigenome and identifying signatures.

The signatures found by the field-deployable platform technology will be used to determine exposure to materials associated with WMD.

As part of the agreement, the company will examine blood samples from people with a history of dealing with materials associated with biological, chemical, explosive, pesticide or herbicide contaminants.

The results will then be compared to control people who have no known history of handling these WMD materials in order to identify unique epigenome signatures.

Battelle Biologist and Principal Research Scientist Rachel Spurbeck said: “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. This will even allow for diagnosing illnesses in individuals as a result of their exposure.”

The epigenome comprises a record of the chemical changes to the DNA and enables the human body to adapt and survive in constantly changing conditions.

A person’s environment can leave marks on the genome that modifies how genes are expressed.

Epigenetic modifications can imprint the epigenome for decades and leave ‘a time-stamped biography of an individual’s exposures’.

The ECHO technology would be able to read someone’s epigenome from a biological sample such as a finger prick or nasal swab.

It will then perform analysis to identify possible exposure events without the need for trace amounts of the threat in the sample.

Earlier this month, Battelle announced that it is working on DARPA’s artificial intelligence exploration programme known as Intelligent Neural Interfaces.