Josh Gabbatiss / The Independent & Erin Durkin / The Guardian – 2018-10-06 00:45:48
Scientists Warn: US Military Plan to Spread Viruses Using Insects,
Which Could Create a ‘New Class of Biological Weapon’
Josh Gabbatiss / The Independent
Agency says it is trying to
genetically modify crops, but experts think
this goal is ‘simply not plausible’
(October 5, 2018) — Insects could be turned into “a new class of biological weapon” using new US military plans, experts have warned. The Insect Allies programme aims to use bugs to disperse genetically modified (GM) viruses to crops. Such action will have profound consequences and could pose a major threat to global biosecurity, according to a team that includes specialist scientists and lawyers.
However, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for developing military technologies in the US, says it is merely trying to alter crops growing in fields by using viruses to transmit genetic changes to plants.
In theory, this rapid engineering would allow farmers to adapt to changing conditions, for example by inserting drought-resistance genes into corn instead of planting pre-engineered seeds.
But this seemingly inoffensive goal has been slammed by the scientists, who say the plan is simply dangerous and that insects loaded with synthetic viruses will be difficult to control.
They also say that despite being in operation since 2016 and distributing $27m in funds to scientists, DARPA has failed to properly justify the existence of such a programme.
“Given that DARPA is a military agency, we find it surprising that the obvious and concerning dual-use aspects of this research have received so little attention,” Felix Beck, a lawyer at the University of Freiburg, told The Independent.
Dr. Guy Reeves, an expert in GM insects at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, said that there has been hardly any debate about the technology and the programme remains largely unknown “even in expert circles”.
He added that despite the stated aims of the programme, it would be far more straightforward using the technology as a biological weapon than for the routine agricultural use suggested by DARPA.
“It is very much easier to kill or sterilise a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” explains Reeves.
Experiments are reportedly already underway using insects such as aphids and whiteflies to treat corn and tomato plants.
Mr. Beck said he and fellow experts were not suggesting that the US military wanted to create biological weapons, but that the proposed agricultural uses are “simply not plausible for a number of reasons”.
Firstly, they note that if farmers wanted to use genetically modified viruses to improve their crops, there is no reason not to use conventional spraying equipment.
They also noted that despite DARPA stating that no insects used should survive longer than two weeks, if such safeguards were not in place “the spread could in principle be unlimited”.
Mr. Beck added: “The quite obvious question of whether the viruses selected for development should or should not be capable of plant-to-plant transmission — and plant-to-insect-to-plant transmission — was not addressed in the DARPA work plan at all”.
Making their case in the journal Science, the team noted that if Insect Allies’ research cannot be justified, it could be perceived as breaching the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention.
“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes,” explained Professor Silja Voeneky, a specialist in international law at Freiburg University.
“The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible.
“This is particularly true considering this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare.”
To prevent any suspicion and to avoid encouraging other nations to develop their own technologies in this area, the authors of the study have called for more transparency from DARPA if it intends to pursue such programmes.
A spokesperson from DARPA defended the programme, explaining that using insects to apply these gene-altering treatments could provide advantages over sprays.
“Most importantly in this context, sprayed treatments are impractical for introducing protective traits on a large scale and potentially infeasible if the spraying technology cannot access the necessary plant tissues with specificity, which is a known problem,” they said.
“If Insect Allies succeeds, it will offer a highly specific, efficient, safe, and readily deployed means of introducing transient protective traits into only the plants intended, with minimal infrastructure required.”
US Plan to Genetically Alter Crops
Via Insects Feared to Be Biological War Plan
Erin Durkin / The Guardian
LONDON (October 4, 2018) — Government-backed researchers in America are aiming to use virus-carrying insects to genetically engineer crops — raising fears the technology could be used for biological weapons.
A new article in the journal Science explores the shadowy program funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The program aims to disperse infectious, genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to alter the chromosomes of crops — using insects to spread the viruses to the plants.
Researchers have budgeted more than $45 million to pursue the genetic engineering scheme, in a program dubbed Insect Allies.
The agency describes the research as a way to improve crop security: bugs like aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies will be used to spread a virus to plants including corn and tomatoes, which will then impart beneficial genes making the plants resistant to disease or drought.
But in the Science article, an international team of scientists and lawyers warn that the technology could be put to more nefarious purposes, including military applications.
“It is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to natural emergencies,” they write. “As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.”
If true, that would violate the international Biological Weapons Convention, say the authors, who include Guy Reeves, a biologist and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and Silja Voeneky, co-director of the Institute for Public Law at the University of Freiburg.
“It’s much easier to develop a biological weapon than to develop something that could maybe be used in agriculture,” Reeves said.
Scientists at universities including Ohio State, Penn State, the University of California, Davis and many others are working on the research.
The program is the first of its kind. Experiments have been conducted only in sealed greenhouses and labs, not in the open.
“We have viruses which can genetically modify a plant, or even a mouse,” Reeves said. “But no one’s ever proposed dispersing them into the environment. That’s the thing that makes Insect Allies unique.”
The researchers argue that the agency’s claims that the program could be useful for “routine peacetime agriculture” does not add up, since the genetic agents could be spread by spraying, the same way farmers spray pesticides.
Instead, they are using insects — meaning that in order to use the genetic agents to respond to an emergency, officials would somehow have to find a way to distribute living, infected insects to farmers around the country.
“The idea that you’re protecting American farmers seems to be more than a bit of a stretch,” Reeves said.
At the same time, the spread of virus-carrying insects could be hard to control.
“Easy simplifications . . . of the described work program could be used to generate a new class of biological weapons,” the authors write in the Science article.
“The program is primarily a bad idea because obvious simplifications of the work plan with already-existing technology can generate predictable and fast-acting weapons, along with their means of delivery, capable of threatening virtually any crop species.”
They warn that the mere announcement of the Insect Allies program, regardless of its true motives, could spur other countries to create similar technologies capable of being used as biological weapons. “Indeed, it may already have done so,” they write.
DARPA says there is nothing to fear from the program.
“DARPA created Insect Allies to provide new capabilities to protect the United States, specifically the ability to respond rapidly to threats to the food supply. A wide range of threats may jeopardize food security, including intentional attack by an adversary, natural pathogens and pests, as well as by environmental phenomena such as drought and flooding,” said Dr. Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for Insect Allies.
He called spraying treatments “impractical” and said traditional selective breeding methods take years, making insects a new method worth studying. Researchers in the program are required to include three separate “kill switches” to shut down their technology, in addition to using biosecure greenhouses for the demonstrations.
“DARPA is producing neither biological weapons nor the means for their delivery. We do accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology, an issue that comes up with virtually every new powerful technology,” Bextine said.
“Those concerns are precisely why we structured the Insect Allies program the way we did, as a transparent, university-led, fundamental research effort that benefits from the active participation of regulators and ethicists, and proactive communication to policymakers and the public. We also have numerous, layered safeguards in place to maintain biosecurity and ensure the systems we’re developing function only as intended.”
The program has also taken “extra precautions” to identify any unintended consequences, making sure only the targeted plants and insects are affected by the viruses, he said.
DARPA says that if its program successfully develops the insect technology, it will be up to other agencies to decide whether and how it is used in the real world.
US Military to Develop Genetically Modified Plants
To Spy in Environments ‘Unsuitable for Traditional Sensors’
Josh Gabbatiss / The Independent
(November 23, 2017) — The US military wants to deploy plants as “the next generation of intelligence gatherers”. Genetically modified plants could be employed as self-sustaining sensors to gather information in settings unsuitable for more traditional technologies.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies in the US military, has called for scientists to submit ideas for how to harness the power of plants. In the past, DARPA has produced information-gathering technologies such as the satellites and seismographs employed to ensure Soviet compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
But in this new initiative, termed the Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme, the agency is looking to the natural world for help.
“Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests and pathogens,” said Dr. Blake Bextine, the manager of the ATP programme.
“Emerging molecular and modelling techniques may make it possible to reprogramme these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors,” said Dr. Bextine.
The idea is that plants’ natural capabilities can be co-opted to detect relevant chemicals, harmful microorganisms, radiation and electromagnetic signals.
Modifying the genomes of plants would enable the military to control the types of sensing they are doing, and also trigger certain responses that can be monitored remotely using existing hardware.
Technology already exists to monitor plants from the ground, air and even from space.
“Advanced Plant Technologies is a synthetic biology programme at heart,” said Dr. Bextine.
“As with DARPA’s other work in that space, our goal is to develop an efficient, iterative system for designing, building, and testing models so that we end up with a readily adaptable platform capability that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios.”
Past experiments with plants that have been modified in this manner have resulted in organisms that have difficulty settling in the natural environment, where they would be deployed.
The additional strain placed on the modified plants by their new duties makes it difficult for them to survive and compete with surrounding plants. This will be a key area that the new programme seeks to address.
The “proposers day” is being held on 12 December in Arlington, Virginia. It will lay out the objectives of DARPA’s programme and take submissions for research projects that are relevant to the initiative.
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