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.
The technology at the heart of this research could herald an entirely new way of genetically modifying crops. Instead of having to wait for a plant to pass its newly-acquired traits onto the next generation, genetic changes would be imposed upon living organisms, a process known as horizontal genetic alteration. Hence the technology’s name—Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents, or HEGAAs.
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