The U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been accused of trying to create a new class of biological weapons that would be delivered via virus-infected insects.
The Insect Allies program was announced by DARPA in 2016. It is a research project that aims to protect the U.S. agricultural food supply by delivering protective genes to plants via insects—because insects are responsible for the transmission of most plant viruses, scientists believe loading them up with viruses that would offer plants protective benefits would be one way of ensuring food security in the event of a major threat.
In an editorial published in the journal Science, a group of researchers led by Richard Guy Reeves, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, say Insect Allies isn’t exactly what it says it is. Instead, they claim the agency is potentially developing insects as a means of delivering a “new class of biological weapon.”
How does Insect Allies work?
There are many threats that could impact upon food security. This includes environmental disasters, natural pathogens and intentional attacks. Crop failure, for whichever of these reasons, has the potential to have devastating consequences—wheat and maize, for example, are relied upon by hundreds of millions across the globe for their basic nutritional needs.
Genetically altering a species to make it more resiliant comes with problems. Introducing alterations directly into a species’ chromosome is slow, as the alteration must be passed down through generations before it takes hold.
Instead, scientists with DARPA are looking at introducing genetically modified viruses that can edit chromosomes directly in fields—these are known as horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs).
The DARPA program is using the principles of HEGAAs but, unlike traditional methods of dispersal—like spraying fields with them—it wants to spread them through insects. At the moment, maize and tomato plants are being used in experiments and the insects being used for dispersal are leafhoppers, aphids and whiteflies.
“Insect Allies aims to develop scalable, readily deployable, and generalizable countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to mature crops,” Blake Bextine, DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies, told Newsweek. “The program is devising technologies to engineer and deliver these targeted therapies on relevant timescales—that is, within a single growing season. To do so, Insect Allies researchers are building on natural, efficient, and highly specific plant virus and insect vector delivery systems to transfer modified, protective genes to plants.”
Why biological weapons?
Reeves and colleagues offer a number of assertions about why Insect Alliance could end up being a means of bioweapon dispersal. Firstly, they question the very nature of the project—the use of insects. Why, they say, are insects so integral? What is the problem with spraying HEGAAs?
The team says Insect Alliance “appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies… As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”
Potentially, the viruses being introduced could do harm instead of good. The insects could be used to disperse agents that would prevent seeds from growing. “HEGAA weapons could be extremely transmissible to susceptible crop species, particularly where insects were used as the means of delivery,” they write. “Chromosomal editing would be targetable to particular crop varieties dependent on their genome sequence (presumably those varieties not grown by the deploying parties).”
The development of an insect-based system, according to the authors, points to “an intention to develop a means of delivery of HEGAAs for offensive purposes.” The technology, they say, could quickly be simplified and used to develop a whole new class of biological weapons. “In our view, the program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species,” they wrote.
The team calls for more transparency from DARPA as the Insect Alliance progresses. However, it also says the potential to weaponize this technology is already out there. They say weapons programs are driven by the perceived activities of competitors—maybe the Insect Alliance program is a response to intelligence about another nation’s capabilities.
Furthermore, “the mere announcement of the Insect Allies Program, with its presented justifications, may motivate other countries to develop their own capabilities in this arena—indeed, it may have already done so … Reversal of funding for this DARPA project … would not in itself close the particular Pandora’s box that HEGAAs or their insect dispersal may represent.”
DARPA making weaponized insects?
DARPA denies the assertions made by Reeves and colleagues. “DARPA is producing neither biological weapons nor the means for their delivery,” a spokesman told Newsweek. “We do accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology.” He said these concerns are the reason Insect Allies has been structured in the way it is—supposedly as a transparent and university-led research project that encourages communication. “We also have numerous, layered safeguards in place to maintain biosecurity and ensure the systems we’re developing function only as intended,” he added.
Bextine reiterated this point. Researchers working with DARPA are allowed to publish their results and work with different agencies. The experiments they carry out are done so in biosecure greenhouses. “At no point in the program is DARPA funding open release of Insect Allies systems,” Bextine said.
She said she disagrees with the conclusion of the editorial in Science, saying technology and research that deals with food security and gene editing “have a higher bar than most for transparency”—and Insect Allies, she says, meets these high standards.
Responding to the queries relating to delivery—why spraying technology cannot be used—Bextine said these are just not up to the challenge, especially when it comes to responding at a large scale to the most severe threats.
“Many existing methods for protecting crops are inefficient, expensive, imprecise, or destructive to plants, may require significant infrastructure, and often provide only limited efficacy,” she said. “Sprayed treatments are impractical for introducing genetic modifications on a large scale and potentially infeasible if the spraying technology does not access the necessary tissues with specificity. Meanwhile, traditional selective breeding methods for introducing protective traits into plants require years to propagate, nowhere near the speed required to prevent a fast-moving threat from developing into a crisis.”
She added that DARPA would never fund the next generation of aerial spraying technology—this is down to industry and other research funders. “Instead, we reach for fundamentally new ways of delivering more precise, efficacious treatments through systems that can be readily adapted to confront a range of potential threats.
“Emerging biotechnologies—and especially the cutting-edge research being performed on Insect Allies— are pushing science into new territories. DARPA is proud to be taking a proactive role in working with stakeholders to inform a new framework for considering how the benefits of these technologies can be most safely realized.”
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