A team of scientist sounds the alarm in a new Science Policy Forum report about a mysterious US government program that is developing genetically modified viruses that would be dispersed into the environment using insects. The virus-infected or ‘Frankenstein’ insects are being developed as countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the US food supply. The program is operated by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) could be viewed as an attempt to develop an entirely new class of bioweapons that would prompt other nations to seek similar weapons, they cautioned.
The researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg both in Germany, and the University of Montpellier in France suggest DARPA’s program could likely breach the Biological Weapons Convention, the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.
Dubbed the “Insect Allies” program, DARPA began modifying insects in 2017, with the plan to produce more resilient crops to help farmers deal with climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and disease, said Gizmodo. The technology at the center of the program is an entirely new method of genetically modifying crops. Instead of modifying seeds in a lab, farmers would send swarms of insects into their crops, where the genetically modified bugs would infect plants with a virus that passes along the new resilience genes, a process known as horizontal genetic alteration. Hence the technology’s name—Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAA).
For HEGAA to work, Gizmodo explains that DARPA labs develop a virus that is inserted into the chromosome of a target organism. Scientists would use leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids genetically altered in the lab using CRISPR, or a variant of a gene-editing system, to carry the virus into crops. Each plant would then be infected by the insect, triggering the intended effects of protecting crops from natural and or human-made threats.
However, the lead author of the report, Richard Guy Reeves from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, says DARPA’s Insect Allies program is disturbing and an example of dual-use research in which the US government, in addition to aiding farmers’ crops, is also developing a biological weapon.
Insect Allies is reportedly backed by $27 million of funding. According to Gizmodo, there are four academic research teams currently working on the project, including researchers at the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at Austin. DARPA maintains that “all work is conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses, or other secured facilities,” and that the insects have built-in lifespans to limit their spread. By 2020 or 2021, DARPA is planning on testing the virus-infected insects on crops inside greenhouses at undisclosed locations.
Reeves said the use of insects as a vehicle for genetic modification is a horrible idea because they cannot be controlled and indicates that traditional overhead sprays to deliver HEGAAs is the safest bet. DARPA says insects are the only practical solution, as overhead spraying of HEGAAs would require increased farming infrastructure — something that is not available to all farmers.