The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is planning to use insects to deliver genetically engineered viruses to crops, with the aim of altering the plant’s genetic traits in the field.

Story at a glance:

  • Scientists and legal scholars question the rationale for the use of insects to disperse infectious genetically engineered (GE) viruses engineered to edit the chromosomes in plants, warning that the technology could very easily be weaponized.
  • This Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program is the first to propose and fund the development of viral horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents with the capacity to perform genetic engineering in the environment.
  • The $27 million project, called “Insect Allies,” is trying to take advantage of insects’ natural ability to spread crop diseases, but instead of carrying disease, they would spread plant-protective traits.
  • The opinion paper “Agricultural Research, or a New Bioweapon System?” argues that if plant modification were really the ultimate goal, a far simpler and more targeted agricultural delivery system could be used.
  • There are also serious concerns about environmental ramifications, as the insects’ spread cannot be controlled. It would also be impossible to prevent the insects from genetically modifying organic crops.