A US government funded program called “Insect Allies” has come under fire for potentially being in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Launched in 2016 with little in the way of fanfare, the program aims to use aphids or whiteflies to infect crops with tailor made viruses. These viruses are capable of editing crop genes directly, and can enable crops to protect themselves from various environmental threats.
Blake Blextine, who manages the project at the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says this approach is far more efficient than developing new crop varieties in the laboratory.
Modified chromosomes can only be vertically inherited from one generation to the next. Dispersing infectious genetically modified viruses which are able to edit crop chromosomes directly in the fields bypasses this restriction completely. Essentially, it is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer rather than vertical inheritance.
In a policy forum published in international journal Science, the program’s critics argue that this technique could be used to spread diseases and destroy crops rather than protect them.
“The program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery,” says Silja Voeneky, a legal scholar at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The BWC is strongly worded, banning the development of any biological agents “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.”
Apart from arguing that spraying is an equally if not more effective method of delivering viruses, Voeneky and her allies have also built a website that highlights what they see as problems in the project.
Others have rubbished the claim that DARPA is willfully violating BWC. James Stack, a plant pathologist at Kansas State University has argued that if that was DARPA’s intention, it certainly wouldn’t have broadcast a general call to universities to submit ideas on how to go about it. Regardless, both Stack and Blextine have acknowledged that the research conducted in the Insect Allies project could be misused.