IMAGINE IF vast fields of corn or soybeans, the bounty of United States agriculture, faced sudden death, withering because of disease, pests, weather or a deliberate assault on the food supply by another country. Now imagine that a fleet of insects could save the plants by infecting them with a virus, changing their genetic makeup to improve their resiliency, all in one growing season. This is not entirely a fantasy but the goal of an unusual Pentagon research effort — still in the laboratory — that could one day have enormous humanitarian benefits.
Five European researchers have posed a question that deserves an answer: Is this technology capable of being used for destructive purposes? Could the insects be turned into germ carriers that might just as easily destroy a food supply? The researchers’ concern, expressed in Science magazine, is that the insects could become “a new class of biological weapon” and violate an international treaty against them.
The object of their concern is a $45 million research effort called “Insect Allies,” run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced in November 2016 and expected to take four years. The end goal will be to conduct large, contained greenhouse demonstrations in which maize and tomato plants are infected by viruses transported by insects such as leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids. The hope is that viruses could be precisely tailored using sophisticated tools to deliver a specific result in the plant, far more quickly than, say, attempting to stimulate changes across generations of plant growth. DARPA has been home for decades to such blue-sky research missions, with long odds but high reward. “Insect Allies” might wind up in the agency’s dustbin but, if it works, could be of significant benefit to mankind.
Without question, the European skeptics are right to raise questions about this dual-use research, meaning the program could be adapted, in theory, for malign intent. But much research in biology is dual-use by its very nature. Research facilities that produce lifesaving drugs and therapies can be used to create harmful agents and weapons. In the United States, a good amount of attention has been focused in recent years on oversight, including rules for government-funded work. (And there are legitimate concerns, such as earlier this year when researchers in Canada assembled bits of genetic material to resurrect a cousin of the virus that causes smallpox. It should not have been attempted.) Globally, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1975 prohibits the research, development or deployment of germ weapons or their delivery systems, though it has rather weak enforcement mechanisms.
The skeptics say on their website that they worry the DARPA program could be “easily weaponized.” That seems a stretch. No one can ever be sure that bad actors won’t attempt something foolish, but fear should not paralyze a research program of such large potential. The best antidote to these concerns is rigorous oversight, transparency and regulation, which DARPA argues it has put in place. The right course is to proceed, with caution and care.