The Insect Allies program administered by the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been accused of attempting to develop bioweapon-bearing insects. A group of researchers led by Richard Guy Reeves, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, published their concerns in an editorial in the journal Science.
DARPA says that the Insect Allies program is a research project aimed at protecting the US agricultural food supply. This protection would be achieved by delivering protective genes to plants via insects. The DARPA scientists want to be able to introduce genetically modified viruses that can edit chromosomes directly in the crops, known as horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs).
Blake Bextine, DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies, said in an interview, “Insect Allies aims to develop scalable, readily deployable, and generalizable countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to mature crops. The program is devising technologies to engineer and deliver these targeted therapies on relevant timescales—that is, within a single growing season.” At the moment, corn and tomato plants are being used in the experiments.
Food security for basic crops, like wheat and corn, is very important because hundreds of millions across the globe rely on them for their basic nutritional needs. Crop failure due to natural pathogens, environmental disasters, or intentional attacks could have devastating consequences.
Reeves and his colleagues question the very nature of the project and claim that the project “appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies.” They wrote in the editorial: “HEGAA weapons could be extremely transmissible to susceptible crop species, particularly where insects were used as the means of delivery.” Insects are responsible for the transmission of most plant viruses.
The critics are saying the technology could quickly be simplified to develop a whole new class of biological weapons. However, they also say the potential for turning this technology into a weapon is already out there and that the Insect Allies program may be a response to intelligence about another nation’s capabilities.