Some scientists say DARPA’s insect program is really about weapons

Some scientists say DARPA’s insect program is really about weapons

Scientists with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are looking at introducing genetically modified viruses that can edit chromosomes directly, like using insects to transmit genetically modified material into plants. (DARPA illustration)

WASHINGTON — Scientists in Europe are charging that a 2-year-old project by the Pentagon’s innovative and research entity is designed to create a new type of biological weapons — using inspects — as opposed to the stated reason of protecting the U.S. agricultural food supply.

DARPA launched the research program in 2016, with the goal of infusing genes to ward off plant viruses by using insects as the delivery mode. The research is called the Insect Allies Program.

DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It celebrated 60 years of technology breakthroughs this year.

Researchers writing in the newest journal Science said the work to develop Insect Allies is a dual-use technology, one that could also create the potential to use insects to deliver a “new class of biological weapon.

“In our view, the program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast-acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species,” they wrote.

“The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible,” they wrote. “This is particularly true considering this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare.”

They wrote that the program “appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”

The scientists did not offer any support for their concerns. They said that even the existence of the program, despite its stated intentions, could trigger other nations to seek offensive capabilities in the same area.

DARPA told TMN that it understands there is “an issue of perception” but that it has been clear and transparent about the program.

“We do accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology. Those concerns are precisely why we structured the Insect Allies program the way we did, as a transparent, university-led, fundamental research effort that benefits from the active participation of regulators and ethicists, and proactive communication to policymakers and the public,” a DARPA spokesperson said in a statement to TMN.

“We also have numerous, layered safeguards in place to maintain biosecurity and ensure the systems we’re developing function only as intended,” the spokesperson said.

However, DARPA previously said the program is designed to alter crops by using viruses to transmit genetic changes to plants. The theory is to permit farmers to respond rapidly to changing conditions by infusing selected genes targeted to meet a new, specific challenge — such as drought — rather than have to wait for new planting with seeds already altered, according to published reports.

The program is initially focusing on using aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies to treat corn and tomato plants, according to published reports.

The idea to genetically modify viruses that can adapt chromosomes directly in fields is technically known as “horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents” (HEGAAs). The traditional way to employ HEGAAs is via spraying, according to published reports.

“Despite working with highly specific systems to begin with, the program has taken extra precautions to identify and address potential off-target effects,” the DARPA spokesperson said.

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