Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the University of Freiburg in Germany, as well as the University of Montpellier, France, have published a critique of the program, dubbed “Insect Allies,” in the October 5 edition of Science.
They argue that “the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to national emergencies” and therefore the program “may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery,” which would mean a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.
DARPA created Insect Allies to protect against threats to the food supply. An opinion piece in @sciencemagazine questions motives & value of the research. Here we reassert the need for Insect Allies and map the efforts we've taken to proceed responsibly. https://t.co/93K1IgLDEKpic.twitter.com/UNCfsGZOvL— DARPA (@DARPA) October 4, 2018
Speaking to Gizmodo on Thursday, Dr. Blake Bextine, program manager of Insect Allies, said that DARPA was “not producing biological weapons, and we reject the hypothetical scenario,” though they “accept and agree with concerns about potential dual use of technology.”
However, Bextine’s two-page response, released by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency later in the day, did not contain the forceful denial of bioweapons charges. Instead, Bextine argued the program was intended to “respond rapidly to threats to the food supply” and that it was subject to government regulation and transparency rules.
Nothing could possibly go wrong, Bextine firmly emphasized, simply because “every performer in the program is required to include at least three independent kill switches in their systems to shut down functionality of the technology.”
DARPA's "Insect Allies" program: aims to use insects to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses engineered to edit crop DNA directly in fields (horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents, HEGAAs) https://t.co/kqByVtJDC8 ... 🤔 Discuss. pic.twitter.com/LsCsXaaWdh— Stephen Turner (@strnr) October 4, 2018
DARPA’s insect allies would work by injecting the affected crops with gene-editing viruses intended to target whatever ailment affects them, using CRISPR technology. The researchers point out this mechanism could also be used to introduce viruses into healthy organisms, however.
The question is not whether the program can be weaponized; it already has been. DARPA has been one of the major sources of funding for a project to release genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild, armed with a gene-editing virus intended to sterilize the species that transmits malaria. There have been plans to release these GMO mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.
The dispute over Insect Allies comes as Russia has raised concerns about a US biological research facility in Tbilisi, Georgia. A former government minister has recently published online some 100,000 pages of documents about the facility.
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