The Pentagon is studying an insect army to defend crops. Now critics are afraid of a bioweapon

The Pentagon investigates whether insects can be used to combat the loss of crops during agricultural emergencies. The bugs would contain genetically manipulated viruses that could be used quickly if critical crops such as maize or wheat became vulnerable to drought, natural fire blight or a sudden attack by a biological weapon. The concept sees the viruses that make 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 scary.

A team of skeptical scientists and lawyers published an article in the journal Science on Thursday, in which they argued that the Insect Allies program opens a "box of Pandora" and includes technology that "can generally be seen as an attempt to develop biological agents. for hostile purposes and their method of delivery. "A website made by the critics makes their objection blunt:" The DARPA program is easy to arm. "

A grasshopper on a red leaf along a small creek that meets the Sheep River west of Turner Valley, Alta. On Wednesday, September 2, 2015.

Mike Drew / Calgary Sun / Postmedia Network

DARPA's program manager for Insect Allies, Blake Bextine, pushed back to the Science article and said that the program is for peaceful purposes only, has been assessed by government agencies responsible for agricultural safety and has several layers of security built into the research protocols, including total containment of the insects.

"I do not think the public should worry, I do not think the international community should worry," Bextine told The Washington Post.

He acknowledged that Insect Allies includes new technologies that are possible & # 39; dual use & # 39; can be – theoretically used for defensive or offensive purposes. But that's true for almost every advanced technology, he said.

"I think that when you are developing a new and revolutionary technology, there is potential for dual-use possibilities, but that is not what we do, we provide positive properties to plants, we are focused on that positive goal. ensure that we guarantee food security, because food security is, in our view, national security, "Bextine said.

The use of insects as a vector to spread diseases is a classic bioweapon

The program currently provides three types of plague insects as allies: aphids, grasshoppers and white flies. In nature, these insects routinely spread viruses between plants. Recent developments in gene processing, including the relatively inexpensive and simple system known as CRISPR (for clustered regular interpathetic palindromic repeats), could enable researchers to adjust viruses to achieve a specific goal in the infected plant . The engineered virus can turn on or off certain genes that regulate, for example, the growth rate of a plant, which could be useful during an unexpected, severe drought.

Bextine said there are multiple layers of protection to ensure that this technology has no unintended ecological effects. He also said that the program is not focused on the germ-line cells of plants and thus would not lead to hereditary characteristics. The aim of DARPA is to find a way to make a temporary, useful change to plants in a growing season.

This research can never bear fruit. That is the standard for most DARPA projects. The agency, famous for its crucial role in laying the foundations for the internet half a century ago, usually funds research with a low probability of success, but a potentially huge profit.

Food security is an important issue that is unlikely to disappear in the coming decades, because a more crowded planet is faced with climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the rising 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 may include the spread of natural pathogens or something that has been designed in a laboratory.

White flies appear on a regular houseplant.

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DARPA & # 39; s description of Insect Allies combines the fast responsive function of the concept.

"National security can be quickly jeopardized by natural threats to the cultivation system, including pathogens, droughts, floods and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors," explains the DARPA website. "Insect Allies tries to alleviate the consequences of these incidents by applying targeted therapies to adult plants with effects that are expressed on relevant time scales, namely within one growing season."

The authors of the Science paper claim that Insect Allies can 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 outrageous motives. They have said that observers regard the program as an attacking military application that could undermine compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.

"We argue that there is a risk that the program will be considered unjustified by peaceful objectives," said co-author Silja Voeneky, a professor of international law at Freiburg University, against The Washington Post.

She said that using insects as an important feature of the program is particularly worrying because insects can be used cheaply and stealthily by malicious actors.

If this technology works, the national authorities will almost by definition not be able to control the spread

"In our opinion, the justifications are not clear enough, why do they use insects for example, they can use spray systems," said Voeneky. "The use of insects as a vector for the spread of diseases is a classic bioweapon."

The Biological Weapons Convention makes research possible with a clearly defined peaceful goal, 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 is concerned about the potential use of new technologies for processing genes by hostile actors.

"In the course of time, terrorist groups and individuals could also exploit these new opportunities, but I do not see that as something that's going to happen this year or next year, but it's certainly something that we want to be ahead of," he said.

James Stack, plant pathologist at Kansas State University, who is on the advice panel of the Insect Allies project, said that the alarm struck by the Science article is unfounded.

"It does not come close to the application phase, to determine whether this approach is feasible or not, I do not understand the concerns raised in this article, and to convince DARPA to use this as a screen to developing weapons is outrageous, "Stack said.

He continued: "There is a risk inherent in life and you just have to manage it properly." And I think that if we go to a more crowded planet, it places ever-increasing demands on our food systems, our water systems, and we need all the tools in the toolbox that we possibly have. "

One of those tools is genetic modification of organisms by laboratory techniques. Insect Allies may be as effective as a gene-processing technology that could become a standard procedure for farmers, said Guy Reeves, a co-author of the Science article and an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. He said that the genetic modifications – delivered by what he & # 39; horizontal genetic modification of the environment & # 39; mentions – would probably spread in fields reserved for organic, non-genetically modified crops.

"If this program is acceptable and we decide that this technology is something we want to continue with, why should we use a different technology?" He said. "If this technology works, national authorities will almost by definition not be able to control its distribution."

DARPA said this week that the Insect Allies program includes grants for four research institutions: the Boyce Thompson Institute, Penn State, the state of Ohio and the University of Texas at Austin.

The research is still in the initial stages, Bextine said. The first major achievement is the demonstration that aphids can infect a mature maize plant with a modified virus that contains a gene that provides fluorescence.

The corn glowed.

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