The Pentagon suggests that a task force of insects with genetically modified viruses can save farms, critics however warn of bioweapons
The Pentagon research project called ‘Insect Allies’, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has run into controversy. The project involves using gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR to infect insects with modified viruses. This gene-editing can help make crops in the U.S. more resilient. Insect Allies can deploy an army of aphids carrying a genetically modified virus to slow the corn plant’s growth rate, for instance, when a cornfield is hit by an unexpected drought or suddenly exposed to a pathogen.
According to the DARPA website, these gene-edited therapies that target specific characteristics of the plant could take effect in a single growing season and could protect the crop system from food security threats such as disease and flooding. However, several members of the scientific community are against the idea. According to a letter published on October 5, 2018 in the journal Science, a team of five researchers reported concerns that the project can be exploited as a biological weapon. “In our opinion the justifications are not clear enough. For example, why do they use insects? They could use spraying systems,” Silja Voeneky, a co-author of the letter and professor of international law at the University of Freiburg in Germany, told The Washington Post. “To use insects as a vector to spread diseases is a classical bioweapon.”
According to Blake Bextine, program manager for Insect Allies, any new and revolutionary technology has a potential for both offensive and defensive capability. He further stated that the program is focused on delivering positive traits to plants in order to ensure food security. Insect Allies is in the early stage of development with the collaboration of Boyce Thompson Institute, Penn State University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Texas at Austin. According to Bextine, the project recently achieved its first milestone with the testing that determined whether an aphid could infect a stalk of corn with a designer virus, which caused fluorescence. The article was published in Live Science on October 05, 2018.