There have been a number of projects attempting to use genetically modified insects to create positive outcomes (think malaria reduction), but, warns Dr. Joseph Mercola on his blog, Mercola.com, the genetic modification of insects also brings danger. He writes (originally published October 23, 2018):
Genetic engineering (GE) is being used in myriad ways these days, despite the fact we know very little about the long-term ramifications of such meddling in the natural order.
For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is now planning to use insects to deliver GE viruses to crops, with the aim of altering the plant’s genetic traits in the field.
The $27 million DARPA project, called “Insect Allies,” is basically trying to take advantage of insects’ natural ability to spread crop diseases, but instead of carrying disease-causing genes, they would carry plant-protective traits. As explained by The Washington Post:1
“Recent advances in gene editing, including the relatively cheap and simple system known as CRISPR (for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats), could potentially allow researchers to customize viruses to achieve a specific goal in the infected plant.
The engineered virus could switch on or off certain genes that, for example, control a plant’s growth rate, which could be useful during an unexpected, severe drought.”
Insect Allies Project Raises Concerns About Bioterror Use
However, scientists and legal scholars question the rationale for the use of insects to disperse infectious GE viruses engineered to edit the chromosomes in plants, warning that the technology could very easily be weaponized.2,3,4,5
The opinion paper6 “Agricultural Research, or a New Bioweapon System?” published October 4, 2018, in the journal Science questions DARPA’s Insect Allies project, saying it could be perceived as a threat by the international community, and that if plant modification were really the ultimate goal, a far simpler agricultural delivery system could be used.
Jason Delborne, associate professor at North Carolina State University, has expertise in genetic engineering and its consequences. He told Gizmodo:7
“The social, ethical, political and ecological implications of producing HEGAAs [horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents] are significant and worthy of the same level of attention as exploring the science underpinning the potential technology.
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.”
The team has also created a website8 to accompany the paper, the stated aim of which is “to contribute toward fostering an informed and public debate about this type of technology.” On this site you can also find a link to download the 38-page DARPA work plan. DARPA, meanwhile, insists the project’s goal is strictly to protect the U.S. food supply. A DARPA spokesperson told The Independent:9
“[S]prayed 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.
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.”
Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are also participating in the research, which is currently restricted to contained laboratories. Still, many are unconvinced by DARPA’s claims of peaceful aims.
The release of such insects could “play into longstanding fears among countries that enemies might try to harm their crops,” says Dr. David Relman, a former White House biodefense adviser and professor of medicine and microbiology at Stanford. According to The Associated Press (AP):10
“Guy Reeves, a coauthor of the Science paper and a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, says the technology is more feasible as a weapon — to kill plants — than as an agricultural tool. As a result, he said DARPA could be sending an alarming message regardless of its intentions.”
Unforeseen Ramifications Abound
Others are concerned about environmental ramifications, regardless of whether the genetic traits being delivered to the plants are perceived as beneficial or harmful. According to DARPA, none of the insects would be able to survive for more than two weeks, but what if such guarantees fail? What if nature finds a way? If so, the insects’ spread could be near-unlimited.
Gregory Kaebnick, an ethicist at the Hastings Center bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York, told the AP he’s concerned the project may end up causing unforeseen environmental destruction, as insects will be virtually impossible to eradicate once released. If it turns out the genetic modification traits they carry are harmful, there will be no going back.
Yet others, such as Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University who chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on genetically modified food, believe the project’s stated goal of altering genetic traits of plants via insects is near-impossible in the first place.
However, while the research is still in its initial phase, they already have proof of concept. In one test, an aphid infected a mature corn plant with a GE virus carrying a gene for fluorescence, creating a fluorescent corn plant.11
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