Agricultural research or a new biological weapons system? With this disturbing title an article is published today in the magazine Science in which several specialists raise their doubts about a research project of the US Department of Defense. The program proposes to introduce genetic alterations in fields of crops already planted, using infectious viruses that would be dispersed through insects. According to the authors of the article, these characteristics suggest that the project intends to be used offensively and, therefore, become a possible biological weapon.
"The program can be clearly perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes, which, if true, would constitute a violation of the Biological Weapons Convention," the article's signatories say. Guy Reeves and Derek Caetano, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Silja Vöneky, of the Institute of International Law and Ethics of Law and Christophe Boëte, from the Institute of Evolution Sciences of Montpellier.
Scientists refer to the program Insect Allies, funded by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, for its acronym in English). The program has been defined by the agency as a method to combat threats that may affect "the United States' food supply," "including pathogens, drought, floods and frost," but especially those "introduced. by state or non-state agents. "
However, the researchers say that, "the knowledge that will be obtained from this program seems very limited when it comes to improving American agriculture or responding to national emergencies" and warns that, despite having already passed two years since At the beginning, "there have been few public explanations of how the developments derived from the execution of the plan could be applied to the agricultural benefits announced."
The use of insects is worrying
The project aims to disperse genetically modified infectious viruses that have been designed to alter the DNA of crops directly in the fields, which is known as genetic engineering by horizontal transfer and which differs from the genetic modification that is carried out in the laboratory in a controlled "The regulatory, biological, economic and social implications of the dispersion of these horizontal agents of genetic alteration in ecological systems are profound," the researchers warn.
But what is especially worrying for scientists is the method used to disperse the virus, since DARPA forces insects to be used as a means of distribution, rather than using easier control methods such as fumigation. "All the hypothetical benefits for agriculture could probably be achieved through fumigation," the researchers say, so, in their opinion, the DARPA approach reflects "an intention to develop a means of dispersal for offensive purposes."
In the article, scientists set an example from the release of insects infected with genetically modified viruses in a field of corn. The insects would affect the plants, which would end up having an alteration caused by the virus.
"What the virus infection does is modify the host's DNA", explains eldiario.es José Miguel Mulet, professor at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and researcher at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Plants. "If that DNA modification produces, for example, sterility in corn, what happens is that you will lose the harvest, because the infected ears will become sterile and will not produce grains."
The modification of viruses to introduce these types of alterations can be achieved through different techniques that have already been "used for positive things, such as pest control, because you can put genes that render the insects sterile," explains Mulet. However, "another thing is that now that same technology can be used to, instead of controlling pests, extend them, or, as in this case, to limit agricultural production as a strategic weapon."
"A real danger"
According to Mulet, the article published in Science is "a good touch of attention of what can happen", since, unlike "the false alarms about transgenics that come from environmental groups, this is based on reliable data and is a danger real, "he says. Even so, it recognizes that its practical application seems improbable to him due to the lack of control that would be had on the supposed weapon.
"Insects are uncontrollable and although you develop some mechanism of control, you face the problem that living organisms have a very high mutation capacity and the moment you launch them into nature, by pure Darwinian selection you end up generating a resistance , so that what you would have designed to control it will no longer serve you, it would be crazy to use something like that ".
The signatories of the article also complain about the opacity and lack of information about some of the parts of the program. Any project of this type worldwide would have to pass a series of evaluations on the ethical, commercial or biosecurity implications, however, in this case the results of such evaluations are not known, nor have there been any.
"If this is accepted as the global standard for funding projects that can carry out potentially dangerous research, the practices and standards that have helped keep our world free from the use of devastating biological weapons for more than 60 years could be seriously undermined. ", conclude the researchers.
The program Insect Allies It started in 2016, has a programmed duration of 4 years and currently has more than 27 million dollars in research contracts awarded to several consortiums. The plants targeted by the experimentation program are maize and tomato, while dispersal insect species include grasshoppers, whiteflies and aphids.