Security measure or biological weapon?
You’ve no doubt heard of this one in the news over the last couple of weeks. The government’s research agency DARPA created genetically modified insects that can deliver viruses to plants.
Now, viruses aren’t always bad. As we now know, scientists have modified those too in order to carry helpful genes to humans, plants, and animals. The viruses created by DARPA are known as horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs), designed to edit plant chromosomes in the fields. We already treat our crops with HEGAAs via sprays, so the novel part of this technology is employing insects to do the job.
Put simply, advances in biotechnology have made it easier to stick new genes into things in order to make them do what we want. Viruses are great vessels because they can easily enter living things. Insects are great because they are ubiquitous and have long ranges and natural habitats in the places we often can’t efficiently reach. Engineering nature to put a virus we created into an insect we created to do what we want is pretty genius, if it works the way we want.
So let’s get past the “yuck factor.” Nobody likes a virus and there aren’t many people who love the idea of more bugs. Ok, fine.
Bugs have always been an integral part of our ecosystem. We might not want them swarming around us, but we absolutely do want the right ones around our gardens and farms.
There are reasons to be excited about Project Insect Allies. With climate change affecting food sources around the world, these bugs could allow us to deliver genes that make crops more resilient. This can help prevent food shortages and famines. There’s a potential humanitarian angle to this.
But like so many technologies that can help save us, there’s the potential to doom us as well.
DARPA designed the bugs as a defensive mechanism both against the effects of climate and against human sabotage. Of course, a designed bug carrying a mutated virus can also wreak a lot of havoc on the food supply. It all depends on what genes they’re carrying.
There’s been an outcry by scientists, ethicists, and farmers around the world. Richard Guy Reeves and his team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, issued a scathing warning in the journal Science in October accusing DARPA of creating a biological weapon that could easily be misused to wipe out food supplies. They’ve also built a website devoted to keeping up with the latest news. They also claim that such a weapon would be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
So is the risk worth the reward when we’re talking about something as high-stakes as our food supply? According to Reeves, it’s too late to go back anyway:
“the mere announcement of the Insect Allies Program, with its presented justifications, may motivate other countries to develop their own capabilities in this arena—indeed, it may have already done so…. Reversal of funding for this DARPA project…would not in itself close the particular Pandora’s box that HEGAAs or their insect dispersal may represent.”
Program Information: Insect Allies (DARPA, 2018)
DARPA’s Response to Science Opinion Piece (DARPA, 2018)
Insect Allies To The Rescue? (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2018)
The Pentagon Is Studying An Insect Army To Defend Crops. Critics Fear A Bioweapon (Washington Post, 2018)