Four teams of US scientists are said to be investigating the use of genetically modified viruses to alter the DNA in crops.
Their main tool to propagate the viruses is various insect species that are also genetically modified.
The official objective, according to the program financed by the US military, is to protect the crops from a sudden drought, frost … or an external attack.
This plan does not make much sense and some researchers now warn that insects with mutant viruses could become an uncontrolled biological weapon.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, reported its idea of turning harmful insects into allies in 2016, although the four projects selected for the Insect Allies Program were not announced until the end of last year.
What does the project entail?
Everything in these GMO insects and viruses is extreme science and technology, within the limits of science fiction.
The four investigations run in parallel and they all have the same three elements: a virus or bacteria, an insect and a target plant.
In the one led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, they want to use viruses of the genus Begomovirus, which attacks crops such as tomato, to protect plants from inclement weather.
The intention is, after neutralizing its viral load, to add a certain plant gene that expresses a protective feature, such as one more resistance to cold.
To spread the virus, they plan to use one of the worst pests of the tomato, the white fly.
“Now, a farmer cannot do much to save his crop if weather forecasts predict a severe drought for next month,” said Penn State project leader Wayne Curtis, one of the scientists selected by DARPA.
“Although we can develop a variety of plants that will withstand a type of stress, the nature of new diseases and pests threatens to overcome the improvements provided by traditional breeding and genetic modifications.
Experiments then seek to develop a technology that gives a rapid response that allows the distribution of genes that protect plants when they need it.
That rapid reaction is one of the great novelties of Insect Allies. Until now, plant varieties with a certain improvement need years to develop and, once that development is achieved, it needs to be added to the seeds for the following season.
With the new experiments, they intend to insert the virus and genes in adult plants. It would be a horizontal transfer, not vertical, say scientists involved in the project.
Another innovation is the use of the CRISPR gene editing technique to modify the target plant gene with the help of the virus.
Regarding the manipulation of insects, although there have been no details of how this is done there are already experiments that have achieved some positive results in a process of forced evolution called directed genetics.
“Insect Allies has little to do with directed genetics because it proposes using insects to transmit mutations to crops, not members of their own species,” says Derek Caetano-Anollés, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.
Anollés says that anyone who is concerned with targeted genetics should be much more concerned with Insect Allies.
Along with other European biologists, Anollés published a document in the Journal Science in which he warns about the risks involved in the DARPA program.
The article is part of a larger initiative that seeks to dismantle Insect Allies before it can succeed.
The authors acknowledge that this type of technology could have many positive uses but also a dual use: biological warfare.
What worries scientists is that the technology of Insect Allies can be converted very easily into a weapon and it can be done in an extremely covert way.
For example, insects can be designed to infect the crops of an enemy, killing the plants or sterilizing their seeds and no one would find out what had happened until the following harvest comes.
The main criticism directed to DARPA’s project is the military ’s fixation in which insects are used precisely to spread the viruses.
For the authors of the paper, there are technologies of mechanical dispersion that are even more effective and more controllable than the release of thousands or millions of insects with a virus on their backs. This is where the suspicion comes from.
But the main complaint they make is that Insect Allies can be the excuse for other countries to develop their own programs based on similar projects.
In the worst case scenario, this may already be happening and the US may have already opened the Pandora’s box that will change bio-warfare forever no matter whether the DARPA program ends up working out or not.
In the US agency they recognize the risk of a possible double use of technology, something that, they consider, always accompanies a novelty like this.
Even so, the director of Insect Allies, the entomologist Blake Bextine, defends his program from the rest of the criticisms remembering with what objective it was created:
“DARPA created Insect Allies to offer new capabilities to protect the US, in particular, to respond quickly to threats to the food supply,” he says.
Unfortunately, DARPA does not have any credibility as to the real goals of its programs. In fact, its record shows that it always walks on a very fine line between significant technological advances that may favor humanity and total disasters.