Scientists are voicing their concerns over the Pentagon’s idea of making virus-spreading insects. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the project involves using gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to infect insects with modified viruses that could supposedly help make America’s crops more resilient.
For example, if a cornfield were to be hit by an unexpected drought or suddenly exposed to a pathogen, Insect Allies might be able to deploy an army of aphids carrying a genetically modified virus to slow the corn plant’s growth rate, wrote Live Science. According to the DARPA website, these “targeted therapies” could take effect in a single growing season, potentially protecting the American crop system from “food security threats” such as diseases, flooding, frost, and even “threats introduced by state or non-state actors.” However, scientists are rightfully concerned.
In a letter published on October 5 of this year in the journal Science, a team of five scientists wrote about their concerns. They worry that the project could be easily be exploited and used as a biological weapon, or at the bare minimum, could be perceived as a biological weapon by the international community. “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.”
Blake Bextine, the program manager for Insect Allies, is somewhat less concerned. “Anytime you’re developing a new and revolutionary technology, there is that potential for [both offensive and defensive] capability,” Bextine told The Washington Post. “But that [making a biological weapon] is not what we are doing. We are delivering positive traits to plants… We want to make sure we ensure food security because food security is national security in our eyes.”
Although Insect Allies is still in the rather early stages of development, and at least four Unites States colleges (Boyce Thompson Institute, Penn State University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Texas at Austin) have received funding to carry out research. Bextine told The Washington Post that the project recently achieved its first milestone. The project was testing whether an aphid could infect a stalk of corn with a designer virus that caused fluorescence. Horrifyingly, according to the Washington Post, “the corn glowed.”