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. Naturally, the organization leading the research says it’s doing nothing of the sort.
The report is a response to a ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dubbed “Insect Allies,” the idea is to create more resilient crops to help farmers deal with climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and disease. 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. Hence the technology’s name—Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents, or HEGAAs.
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 leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids genetically altered in the lab using 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. DARPA is funding four teams (not three, as claimed in the report), namely the Boyce Thompson Institute, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Texas, Austin. The defence agency maintains that “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 high-priority crop.
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 Forum. 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 farmers.