The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, is funding research into the use of insects as vectors for viral dispersal. The program, dubbed “Insect Allies,” has received $27 million in funding so far toward the development of genetically engineered (GE) viruses capable of gene editing crops in the field.1
While the program is being hailed as a way to release crop-protecting insects that could save agricultural fields from pests, drought or pollution, thereby guarding the food supply, researchers suggest the technology could easily be misused and turned into a new bioweapon system.
What Is the Insect Allies Program?
Insect Allies is a $45 million, four-year program that was launched in 2016.2 Insects such as leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids are being used to carry GE viruses intended to quickly act on plants that are already growing in fields. This would, theoretically at least, give farmers the ability to alter the genetic properties of their crops in order to respond to changes in the environment in real-time. As DARPA put it:3
“National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors. Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at relevant timescales — namely, within a single growing season.”
So far, all work is being conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses and “other secured facilities,” according to DARPA, which said it is not funding open release of the insects carrying GE viruses.4 The purpose is publically stated as being intended for routine agricultural use, with corn and tomato plants reportedly among the first crops being used in experiments.5
However, public debate about the consequences of using GE viruses to modify plants, not to mention releasing insects to freely carry them, is conspicuously lacking. If, in fact, the Insect Allies program is truly aimed at farming, there would need to be changes to the approval of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and changes in the way farmers operate on a large scale.
The public and environment at large would also be affected by the release of insect vectors carrying GE viruses, necessitating additional safety studies and debate.
Yet, as Guy Reeves of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, stated, “There is hardly any public debate about the far-reaching consequences of proposing the development of this technology. The Insect Allies programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles.”6
Insect Allies as Weapons for Biological Warfare?
In a policy forum on dual-use research published in the journal Science, five European scientists sounded an alarm that DARPA’s “agricultural research” could easily be perceived as an effort to “develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”7
This would be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibits parties from developing or producing agents that have no peaceful purposes.
“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes. The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible.
This is particularly true considering that this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare,” Silja Vöneky, a law professor from Freiburg University, told The Max Planck Society, a German research organization.8
Reeves, one of the authors of the Science article, also stated, “It is very much easier to kill or sterilize a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,”9 adding further support that Insect Allies could easily be manipulated into weapons. The first problem noted by the researchers is the technology’s use of horizontal gene transfer. They noted:10
“Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next.
In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields.
This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound.”
Further, if DARPA is to be believed that the insect-carried GE viruses are being studied for use in farming, there are some glaring omissions.
“In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, 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 (in either the short or long term),” the researchers explained, adding:11
“[T]here has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits.
As a result, the program 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 (BWC).”
Problems With Releasing GE-Virus-Carrying Insects
In an interview with The Max Planck Society, Reeves explained the serious consequence that could occur if GE viruses were released into the environment. Viruses, he noted, can have a rapid effect, affecting an entire population within a single generation.12 Further, it’s difficult to predict with confidence which species viruses are capable of infecting.
Releasing infections GMOs should only be done “after very careful consideration,” he stated, and if there are alternatives “in most circumstances it may not make sense to use viral methods whose risks will be difficult to control.”13 Using insects as the vector only amplifies the risks and uncertainties; the unpredictable nature of nature is the only guarantee.
“It would have been perfectly possible for the DARPA work program to have proposed the development of HEGAAs to be deployed using agricultural spraying equipment,” the researchers noted, “without the involvement of insects.”14
In response to the featured Science article, other experts have raised additional risks to be addressed, including what would happen if other species consumed the insects carrying the GE viruses, and how the GE viruses would interact with other viruses, bacteria and fungi being carried by the insects.15
Further, insects will not be able to distinguish between conventional crops and certified organic crops, which do not permit genetic engineering. There would be no way for organic farmers to keep these insect vectors from altering their crops, which could destroy organic farming, or worse.
In addition to calling for increased transparency from DARPA, the Science authors noted that the Insect Allies Program could lead other countries to begin developing their own versions of infectious GE viruses. According to The Max Planck Society:16
“The authors of the Science article are also concerned that the Insect Allies Program might encourage other states to increase their own research activities in this field — regardless of whether this program proves to be technically successful or not.
Past efforts for banning the development of biological weapons have shown how important it is that this ban be applied by states such as the USA, who are considered an example by other countries. Based on this, the authors propose that the US should make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.”
GE Mosquitoes Highlight the Unpredictable Nature of Nature
It’s impossible to predict what could happen if insects carrying infectious GE viruses are intentionally released. Even in circumstances that are supposed to be carefully controlled with multiple fail safes in place, nature often finds a way around them. Such is the case with Oxitec’s GE mosquitoes, which were created in an attempt to control mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
The male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were genetically engineered to carry a “genetic kill switch,” such that when they mate with wild female mosquitoes, their offspring inherit the lethal gene and cannot survive or reproduce in the wild.
Except, the GE mosquitoes have already been released in Brazil, and researchers monitoring the project have found the GE genes have crossed with wild mosquitoes — despite the company’s assurances that this wouldn’t happen.
In a press release from Yale, senior study author Jeffrey Powell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, noted, “The claim was that genes from the release strain would not get into the general population because offspring would die … That obviously was not what happened.”17
When analyzed six, 12 and 27 to 30 months after release, the researchers found “clear evidence that portions of the transgenic strain genome have been incorporated into the target population.”18
In lab tests up to 4% of OX513A, as they’re known, offspring, which were the result of matings between OX513A and wild type mosquitoes, did survive into adulthood.19 However, on their website, Oxitec used to state, “After an Oxitec mosquito has successfully mated with a wild female, any offspring that result will not survive to adulthood … ”20
GE Mosquitoes May End Up Creating Heartier Insects
That page has since been taken down, but the company is still touting the “self-limiting gene” that’s supposed to “disappear from the environment.”21 Still, Oxitec has stated that releasing their OX513A mosquitoes may reduce local mosquito populations by 90+%.22,23
It sounds impressive, but the study revealed that, after an initial decline, the mosquito population rebounded about 18 months after the GE mosquitoes were released. Powell suggested the rebound may have occurred because female mosquitoes started to avoid mating with the GE males, a phenomenon that’s also occurred in tests when sterile male mosquitoes were released.
What’s more, the “tri-hybrid population” that’s now been created from the Cuba, Mexican and Brazilian lines are “genetically distinct” and may be even heartier than previous mosquitoes — showing once again the unpredictable nature of nature.24 As with GE mosquitoes, the release of DARPA’s “insect allies” could lead to irrevocable environmental changes on an unprecedented scale.
As Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, told Science, DARPA needs to answer the question of why Insect Allies are being developed and if they can’t do that, “the question is why scientists are so determined to make what could easily be a breakthrough with very limited utility, but serious safety and security risks.”25