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Evolutionary biologists and law scholars in Germany and France have criticised a US project aimed at developing the use of insects to spread genetically modified viruses to crops. The viruses featured in the “Insect Allies” programme are meant to alter crop plant chromosomes through genome editing. However, there are fears that the method could also be put to military use.

Insect Allies was launched by the US Department of Defense in 2016, whose Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was provided with a total of 45 million US dollars to run the programme over a four-year period. According to Programme Manager Dr Blake Bextine, Insect Allies aims to develop “scalable, readily deployable, and generalizable countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the food supply with the goal of preserving the US crop system”. Bextine warns that naturally occurring threats to crops, such as pathogens, drought, flooding or frost, can quickly jeopardise national security, and refers to an even greater danger of “threats introduced by state or non-state actors”.

Using insects as “freight planes”

The rationale for Insect Allies is simple. “Insects eat plants, and insects transmit the majority of plant viruses,” Bextine explains. “DARPA plans to harness the power of this natural system by engineering genes inside plant viruses that can be transmitted by insects to confer protective traits to the target plants they feed upon.” Following this concept, the Insect Allies programme comprises three technical areas: viral manipulation, insect vector optimisation and selective gene therapy in mature plants.

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