WASHINGTON — An office within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is preparing to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by developing a portable device that can identify exposure to a threat agent.

The four-year Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation, or ECHO, program falls under the purview of the Biological Technologies Office, which will attempt to create a device that discriminates if and when a friend or foe has been exposed to a WMD threat agent.

While the composition of an individual’s DNA does not fundamentally change over a lifetime, environmental conditions influence DNA by modifying gene expression. All of these modifications are stored in the epigenome, described by ECHO Program Manager Eric Van Gieson as a “rich biographical record that we carry around with us.”

While our understanding of the epigenome is relatively limited, DARPA believes it can use the genetic database as a diagnostic tool to identify exposure to WMD agents.

Currently, forensic and diagnostic screening technologies can only identify the immediate presence of a chemical or biological agent, which like most physical evidence can be erased.

DARPA envisions a device that uses a biological sample, like a finger prick or nasal swab, to determine if an individual has been exposed to WMD or WMD precursors long after physical exposure.

“ECHO technology could open up new sources of forensic evidence and make battlefield collection of evidence safer, more efficient, and more accurate,” said Van Gieson. “Additionally, by making 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.”

To this effect, the ECHO program has two main objectives. First, the team must identify and discriminate epigenetic signatures created by exposure to threat agents.

Second, researchers will have to create technology that performs highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses that reveal both the type and time of exposure. Whereas laboratory technologies normally take at least two days to perform this molecular analysis, DARPA hopes to deliver a portable capability that can do the same analysis in 30 minutes or less.

DARPA is hosting a Proposers Day on Feb. 23 to explain the ECHO program to potential proposers and answer questions about the project.