by George Dvorsky
Crops in Kansas as seen from space.
U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team
A new technology in which insects are used to genetically modify
crops could be converted into a dangerous, and possibly illegal,
bioweapon, alleges a Science Policy Forum report released today.
organization leading the research says it's doing nothing of the
The report (Agricultural
Research, or a New Bioweapon System?)
is a response to a ongoing research program funded by the U.S.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Allies," the idea is to create more resilient crops to help farmers
deal with climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and
But instead of modifying
seeds in a lab, farmers would send fleets of insects into their
crops, where the genetically modified bugs would do their work,
"infecting" the plants with a special virus that passes along the
new resilience genes.
If you think this sounds scary, you're not alone.
The lead author of the
new Science Policy Forum report, Richard Guy Reeves from the
Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology,
Plön, says the Insect Allies program is a
disturbing example of dual-use research in which DARPA, in addition
to helping out farmers, is also working on a potential weapon.
When contacted by Gizmodo,
DARPA denied the accusations made in the new report, saying it's
filled with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations.
The technology at the heart of this research could herald an
entirely new way of genetically modifying crops. Instead of having
to wait for a plant to pass its newly-acquired traits onto the next
generation, genetic changes would be imposed upon living organisms,
a process known as horizontal genetic alteration.
technology's name - Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration
For HEGAAs to work, a lab-developed genetic modification needs to be
inserted into the chromosome of a target organism. And that's where
the insects come in.
The system would utilize,
...genetically altered in the lab
CRISPR, or some other gene-editing system, to carry an
infectious virus to pre-existing crops.
Each plant would be
infected with a transgene, triggering the desired gain-of-function,
such as improved resistance to drought or frost. Insect Allies was announced in November 2016, and it currently
involves research contracts in excess of $27 million.
funding four teams (not three, as claimed in the report), namely the,
Boyce Thompson Institute
Ohio State University
University of Texas, Austin
The defence agency
"all work is conducted inside closed laboratories,
greenhouses, or other secured facilities," and that the insects will
have built-in lifespans to limit their spread.
DARPA is hoping to see
tests done in greenhouses in as few as two years, with maize being a
Needless to say, there are concerns about how this technology might
be used - especially in consideration of its primary funder, namely
DARPA, and by extension, the Pentagon.
"It is our opinion
that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very
limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond
to national emergencies," write the authors in the new Policy
Instead, they say,
"the program may be
widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for
hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which - if true -
would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)."
Reeves and colleagues
contest the use of insects as a vehicle for genetic enhancement is a
dreadfully bad idea because they can't be controlled, and that
overhead sprays to deliver the HEGAAs would be more prudent.
DARPA, on the other hand,
says insects are the only practical solution, as overhead spraying
of HEGAAs would require infrastructure that's not available to
The Policy Forum piece also notes how transgenic virus-infected and
genetically altered food crops could, conceivably, be made available
to national or international markets, and that no regulatory
framework exists to handle this.
But it's the "secondary intention" alluded to by DARPA that's
raising the most serious flags - the use of HEGAAs as a defensive
response to threats.
As DARPA explained at the
onset of the project:
National security can
be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the
crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost,
but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state
Insect Allies seeks
to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted
therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at
relevant timescales - namely, within a single growing season.
Such an unprecedented
capability would provide an urgently needed alternative to
pesticides, selective breeding, slash-and-burn clearing, and
quarantine, which are often ineffective against rapidly emerging
threats and are not suited to securing mature plants.
The authors of the new
report interpret this as,
"an intention to
develop a means of delivery of HEGAAs for offensive purposes,"
such as engaging in biological warfare.
The introduction of this
technology, the authors argue, would herald the advent of an
entirely new class of biological, insect-dispatched weapons that
could conceivably be used to introduce various deleterious
The authors further warn
that this technology could motivate rival nations to develop similar
In response to a Gizmodo query, a spokesperson for DARPA said it
welcomes academic dialogue about the Insect Allies program, but the
agency rejects the conclusion of the Policy Forum Piece, saying
peppered with inaccuracies."
To which the spokesperson
We also wish that the researchers had, at any point, contacted DARPA
to request information about the program. Insect Allies is a
fundamental research program with research being performed by
university-led or affiliated teams.
Those researchers are
free to publish their results, and encouraged to discuss their
research and engage regulators to advance the science in the most
responsible and productive way possible. Had DARPA been contacted
for information, we would have happily provided it.
Additionally... there is
abundant information on the program already publicly available.
Blake Bextine, DARPA Program Manager for
rejects many of the claims made in the Policy Forum report.
"DARPA is not
producing biological weapons, and we reject the hypothetical
scenario," Bextine told Gizmodo.
"We accept and agree
with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue
that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology.
Those concerns are
precisely why we structured the Insect Allies program the way we
did, as a transparent, university-led, fundamental research
effort that benefits from the active participation of regulators
and ethicists and proactive communication to policymakers."
The purpose of Insect
Allies, he says, is to prepare for the unpredictability of
fast-moving or emerging threats to U.S. agriculture.
As for the potential
environmental impacts of HEGAAs, Bextine says DARPA and its
collaborators are doing their due diligence.
extraordinarily sensitive to environmental risks and off-target
effects, and has structured the Insect Allies program to
identify and mitigate them," he said.
"DARPA has mandated
multiple levels of biosafety and biosecurity at each stage of
collaborators succeed in their projects, they will have developed
gain-of-function treatments that can be delivered to the "right
plants" and the "right tissue," he said.
These traits will be
expressed for a limited duration, after which time the plants will
return to their original state, according to Bextine.
Also, insects could be
engineered such that they'd die after just one day.
At the same time, the
specificity of the Insect Allies system, he says, contrasts
with state-of-the-art technologies for agricultural threat response.
sprayed pesticides blow into other areas, seep into groundwater,
and can affect more than the intended target," Bextine told
"When it comes to
mature plants like citrus trees, often times the only effective
solution to halting the spread of a threat requires destroying
plants through slash-and-burn techniques within a given radius."
Jason Delborne, an
Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, an expert in
genetic engineering and its potential environmental, economic, and
social consequences, says the concerns seem "appropriate."
"The social, ethical,
political, and ecological implications of producing HEGAAs are
significant and worthy of the same level of attention as
exploring the science underpinning the potential technology,"
Delborne told Gizmodo.
"The authors argue
persuasively that specifying insects as the preferred delivery
mechanism for HEGAAs is poorly justified by visions of
and expertise required for spraying agricultural fields - at
least in the U.S. context - is well established, and this
delivery mechanism would offer greater control over the
potential spread of a HEGAA."
No doubt, the
implications of this pending biotechnology are vast.
The authors may be
overstating DARPA's intentions, but the ultimate message of this
report is being heard loud and clear:
HEGGAs could be very