DARPA ECHO Proposers Day

Epigenetic Characterization and Observation (ECHO) Program Overview

Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) production is proliferating around the world, specifically among terror groups and non-state actors. Current forensic practice uses residues associated with WMD manufacture or exposure, which are often transient and in such low concentrations making them virtually undetectable in field forward austere conditions. Addressing the emerging WMD threat requires a capability that can move beyond the state of the art to forensically link an individual to WMD manufacture, and diagnose WMD exposure, with high specificity and temporal resolution with respect to the timing of the exposure event. 

The Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation (ECHO) program aims to reveal an individual’s WMD and WMD precursor exposure history, recorded in their own epigenome. ECHO will build a new forensic and diagnostic platform that provides an advantage over current methods, as the epigenome is imprinted in the genome and detectable even when physical evidence has been erased. ECHO will build signatures that incorporate the pattern of unique epigenetic changes associated with a specific exposure to a single compound or agent. The exposure-specific epigenetic signatures will contain information that denotes the specific exposure and time since exposure. Ultimately, ECHO will integrate the final epigenetic signature panel into a point-of-need forensic and diagnostic system.

Success in this program will require groundbreaking approaches to characterize epigenetic signatures from WMD exposure events, and new bioinformatics tools to perform forensic analysis and disease diagnostics with high sensitivity, specificity and temporal resolution. Proposing teams should be multidisciplinary with expertise in WMD threat agents, chromatin biology, epigenetics, gene expression, bioinformatics, microfluidics, next generation sequencing, forensics, circulating biomarker discovery, point-of-care diagnostic device development, infectious disease surveillance, and computational modeling. Proposing teams are strongly encouraged to include expertise across these fields, as well as with industry partners that can develop commercial applications based on outputs of the ECHO program.