It sounds like science fiction: A research program funded by the U.S. government plans to create virus-carrying insects that, released in vast numbers, could help crops fight threats such as pests, drought, or pollution. “Insect Allies,” as the $45 million, 4-year program is called, was launched in 2016 with little fanfare. But in a policy forum in this week’s issue of Science, five European researchers paint a far bleaker scenario. If successful, the technique could be used by malicious actors to help spread diseases to almost any crop species and devastate harvests, they say. The research may be a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the piece argues.
The paper is likely to touch off another round in the long-running debate about “dual-use research of concern,” scientific work that may have benefits but could also be used for nefarious means. Other recent examples of such science include the creation of a flu mutant better able to spread in mammals and the synthetic creation of the extinct horsepox virus, a cousin of the virus that causes smallpox.
Funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, Insect Allies aims to use insects such as aphids or whiteflies to infect crops with tailormade viruses that can deliver certain genes to mature plants; it’s essentially gene therapy for crops. The goal, DARPA says, is to find a new way to protect plants growing in the field from emerging threats. The approach would be faster and more flexible than developing new crop varieties in the laboratory, which can take years, says Blake Bextine, who manages the project at DARPA.