An ongoing US military research project that is exploring a new biotechnology to genetically modify mature crops has some scientists worried. The program is intended to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply, according to its benefactor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.
However, the project may be "widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which -- if true -- would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention," writes Guy Reeves, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and his co-authors in an editorial published Thursday in the journal Science.
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So what exactly is this controversial "means of delivery"?
Insects. Specifically, bugs infected with engineered viruses capable of gene-editing crops.
In essence, the Insect Allies Program seeks to speed the genetic modification process.
Typically, when creating genetically modified foods, agricultural scientists introduce DNA alterations into the chromosomes of plant seeds within a lab. The modified genes then show themselves as new traits in the grown plant. This is known as vertical gene transfer because the new traits may then be inherited from one generation to the next.
By contrast, the DARPA project uses "horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents," in which common pests are the agents of genetic modification. The insects deliver engineered viruses that can gene-edit the chromosomes of mature plants for the purpose of making them more resistant to disease and drought.
Seen through the eyes of Reeves and his co-authors, the biological, economic and societal implications of dispersing horizontal genetic alteration agents into ecosystems are "profound," especially in light of the insect delivery system.
"It will not always be possible to confidently identify which plants or fields have been infected by the genetically modified virus (due to inevitable uncertainty about insect movements and the susceptibility of crops to viral infection)," they wrote. Additionally, "easy simplifications" of the biotechnology could be used to generate "a new class of biological weapon," one that is "extremely transmissible to susceptible crop species" -- in other words, an attack to wipe out crops, for example.
"It is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies," the authors wrote. And so they call for more transparency from DARPA in addition to more opportunities for public discussion of this new strategy.
Jared B. Adams, chief of communications at DARPA, says the defense agency -- which does not conduct research itself but instead provides financing -- does not agree with some of the claims in the editorial.
"That said, we do accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology," Adams said. Dual use, as defined by the US government, describes items or technologies that have "both commercial and military or proliferation applications."
Concerns about possible dual use led DARPA to structure the Insect Allies Program as "a transparent, university-led, fundamental research effort that benefits from the active participation of regulators and ethicists," Adams wrote in an email. "We also have numerous, layered safeguards in place to maintain biosecurity and ensure the systems we're developing function only as intended." Safeguards include conducting all of the work for the program inside contained, biosecure facilities.
Blake Bextine, who acts as program manager for DARPA's Insect Allies project, wrote in a statement that the current "state-of-the-art methods and technologies for protecting staple crops, and especially mature plants," are not up to the challenge of responding quickly to the most severe threats that could put the nation's food security in jeopardy. Potential hazards include drought, flooding and "intentional attack by an adversary," he noted.
"Sprayed treatments are impractical for introducing genetic modifications on a large scale and potentially infeasible," Bextine wrote. "Meanwhile, traditional selective breeding methods for introducing protective traits into plants require years to propagate, nowhere near the speed required to prevent a fast-moving threat from developing into a crisis."
Adams noted that if, by chance, the Insect Allies technology is successful, "it will be entities other than DARPA that determine if and how the technology is used."
"If our Insect allies research institutions succeed and move to apply their work in the future, they will need to go through the standard regulatory process for approval," he said.
In the meantime, Reeves and his co-authors remain concerned.
Even if DARPA's funding for this project were withdrawn, it would not close the "Pandora's box" that this new technology represents, they wrote.