The Pentagon is studying whether insects can be enlisted to combat crop loss during agricultural emergencies.
The bugs would carry genetically engineered viruses that could be deployed rapidly if critical crops such as corn or wheat became vulnerable to a drought, a natural blight or a sudden attack by a biological weapon.
The concept envisions the viruses making genetic modifications that protect the plants immediately, during a single growing season.
The program, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has a warm and fuzzy name: 'Insect Allies'. But some critics find the whole thing creepy.
A team of skeptical scientists and legal scholars published an article in the journal Science on Thursday arguing that the Insect Allies program opens a "Pandora's box" and involves technology that "may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery".
A website created by the critics puts their objection more bluntly: "The DARPA program is easily weaponized".
DARPA's program manager for Insect Allies, Blake Bextine, pushed back on the Science article, saying the program is solely for peaceful purposes, has been reviewed by government agencies responsible for agricultural safety and has multiple layers of safeguards built into the research protocols, including total containment of the insects.
"I don't think that the public needs to be worried. I don't think that the international community needs to be worried," Bextine told The Washington Post.
He acknowledged that Insect Allies involves new technologies that potentially could be "dual use" - deployed, in theory, for either defensive or offensive purposes. But that's true for almost any advanced technology, he said.
"I think anytime you're developing a new and revolutionary technology, there is that potential for dual-use capability. But that is not what we are doing. We are delivering positive traits to plants. We're focused on that positive goal. We want to make sure we ensure food security, because food security is national security in our eyes," Bextine said.
The program currently envisions three types of pestiferous insects as allies: aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies. In nature these bugs routinely spread viruses among plants.
Recent advances in gene editing, including the relatively cheap and simple system known as CRISPR (for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats), could potentially allow researchers to customize viruses to achieve a specific goal in the infected plant.
The engineered virus could switch on or off certain genes that, for example, control a plant's growth rate, which could be useful during an unexpected, severe drought.
Bextine said there are multiple layers of protection to ensure that this technology does not have unintended ecological effects. He also said that the program is not targeting the germline cells of plants and thus would not lead to heritable traits.
The DARPA goal is to find a way to make a temporary, beneficial modification to plants in a single growing season.
This research may never bear fruit. That's the norm for most DARPA projects.
The agency, famous for its key role in laying the foundation for the Internet half a century ago, typically funds research with a low probability of success but a potentially huge pay-off.
Food security is a major issue not likely to vanish anytime in the coming decades, as a more crowded planet experiences climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the surging demand for food and water. Crop warfare is another concern.
In ancient times, armies burned fields as a strategic element of conquest. In today's world the threats could include the distribution of natural pathogens or something engineered in a laboratory.
DARPA's description of Insect Allies touts the rapid-response feature of the concept.
"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 actors," the DARPA website states.
"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. "
The authors of the Science paper contend that Insect Allies could potentially be interpreted as a violation of an international treaty called the Biological Weapons Convention. They do not go so far as to claim that DARPA has nefarious motives.
They have said that if observers see the program as having an offensive military applications that could undermine adherence to the biological weapons treaty.
"We argue that there is the risk that the program is seen as not justified by peaceful purposes," co-author Silja Voeneky, a professor of international law at the University of Freiburg, told The Washington Post.
She said the use of insects as a key feature of the program is particularly alarming, because insects could be deployed cheaply and surreptitiously by malevolent actors.
"In our opinion the justifications are not clear enough. For example, why do they use insects? They could use spraying systems," Voeneky said.
"To use insects as a vector to spread diseases is a classical bioweapon."
The biological weapons treaty does permit research that has a clearly stated peaceful purpose, said Andy Weber, a former Pentagon official overseeing nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs and now a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks.
Weber noted that the biodefense community has been concerned about the potential use of new gene-editing technologies by hostile actors.
"Over time, terrorist groups and individuals could also exploit these new capabilities, but I don't see that as something that is going to happen this year or next year. But it's certainly something that we want to get ahead of," he said.
James Stack, a plant pathologist at Kansas State University who is serving on the advisory panel of the Insect Allies project, said the alarm sounded by the Science article is unfounded.
"It's nowhere near the application stage. This is to determine if this approach is viable or not. I don't understand the level of concern raised in this paper, and to jump ahead and accuse DARPA of using this as a screen to develop biological weapons is outrageous," Stack said.
He went on: "There's risk inherent in life and you just have to manage it well. And I think as we move into a more crowded planet it's going to put increasing demands on our food systems, our water systems. We're going to need all the tools in the tool box that we possibly have."
One of those tools is genetic modification of organisms through laboratory techniques. Insect Allies might be so effective as an gene-editing technology that it could become a standard procedure for farmers, said Guy Reeves, a co-author of the Science paper and an evolutionary biologist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.
He said the genetic modifications - delivered by what he refers to as "horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents" - would likely spread into fields reserved for organic, non-genetically modified crops.
"If this program is acceptable, and we decide this technology is something we want to move forward with, why would we use any other technology for anything?" he said.
"If this technology works, almost by definition, national governments will not be able to control its spread."
DARPA said this week that the Insect Allies program includes grants to four research institutions: the Boyce Thompson Institute, Penn State, Ohio State and the University of Texas at Austin.
The research is still in its initial phase, Bextine said. The first major achievement is the demonstration that an aphid can infect a mature corn plant with a modified virus containing a gene that creates fluorescence.
The corn glowed.
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