Fellows in the News

A new technology in which insects are used to genetically modify crops could be converted into a dangerous, and possibly illegal, bioweapon, alleges a Science Policy Forum report released today. Naturally, the organization leading the research says it’s doing nothing of the sort.

The report is a response to a ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Dubbed “Insect Allies,” the idea is to create more resilient crops to help farmers deal with climate change, drought, frost, floods, salinity, and disease. But instead of modifying seeds in a lab, farmers would send fleets of insects into their crops, where the genetically modified bugs would do their work, “infecting” the plants with a special virus that passes along the new resilience genes.

If you think this sounds scary, you’re not alone. The lead author of the new Science Policy Forum report, Richard Guy Reeves from the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön, says the Insect Allies program is a disturbing example of dual-use research in which DARPA, in addition to helping out farmers, is also working on a potential weapon. When contacted by Gizmodo, DARPA denied the accusations made in the new report, saying it’s filled with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations.

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Jason Delborne, an Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, an expert in genetic engineering and its potential environmental, economic, and social consequences, says the concerns seem “appropriate.”

“The social, ethical, political, and ecological implications of producing HEGAAs are significant and worthy of the same level of attention as exploring the science underpinning the potential technology,” Delborne told Gizmodo. “The authors argue persuasively that specifying insects as the preferred delivery mechanism for HEGAAs is poorly justified by visions of agricultural applications. The infrastructure and expertise required for spraying agricultural fields—at least in the U.S. context—is well established, and this delivery mechanism would offer greater control over the potential spread of a HEGAA.”

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