Viruses are genetically engineered to enable them to edit the chromosomes of targeted crops and give them new resilience genes. These viruses, known as Horizontal Environmental Genetic Alteration Agents (HEGAAs), are carried by the insects, which have also been genetically altered, to crop plants growing in fields. Here, they enter the chromosomes of the plants and can edit their genome. Applying HEGAAs to mature plants is expected to yield effects within a single growing season, and could make crop plants less susceptible to pests or inclement weather within a very short space of time. “Such an unprecedented capacity would provide an urgently needed alternative to pesticides, selective breeding, slash-and-burn clearing, and quarantine, which are often ineffective against rapidly emerging threats and are not suited to securing mature plants,” Bextine maintains.

The 14 US research facilities funded in the programme include the Boyce Thomson Institute at Cornell University, New York, Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and the University of Austin, Texas.