The U.S. military is studying the possibility of creating a new type of biological weapon. It would involve insects selected to carry a genetically modified virus. The objective of this plan, deployed through DARPA, the U.S. Army's research agency, is to rapidly deploy this armada if food-critical crops such as corn or wheat were to be endangered by a natural plague, a sudden attack by a biological weapon, or simply a severe drought. The concept calls for viruses to make genetic changes that protect plants immediately, during a single growing season.
Che program, funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), goes by the name " Insect Allies ». Blake Bextine, the manager of this program, states that it is for exclusively peaceful purposes. Insect Allies has been reviewed by government agencies responsible for farm safety, he says, and has multiple safeguards built into the research protocols, including total insect containment. He says he has nothing to fear from the program, which has a hint of science fiction flavor that's a little worrisome.
Indeed, to say the least, this concept of spreading genetically modified viruses through insects raises questions. The biotechnologies employed in the programme and the mode of administration can potentially be "dual-use". DARPA asserts that it wants to follow a positive objective: to ensure food safety.
In an interview with Wahington Post who revealed this program, Blake Bextine assures that " food security is in our view a matter of national security ». Let's take this official at his word and take him at his word. But nothing prevents us from thinking that the same technology could be used for offensive or even malicious purposes.
Aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies enlisted by the US Army
The program Insect Allies plans to recruit three types of insects: aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies. These are common in nature and regularly spread viruses among plants. Recent advances in gene editing, and in particular the use of the CRISPR tool, allow scientists to customize viruses to achieve a specific target on an infected plant. The modified virus could thus activate or deactivate certain genes that, for example, control plant growth, which could be useful in the event of unexpected severe drought.
Mr. Bextine wants to reassure the public that there are multiple layers of protection to ensure that this technology does not have unintended environmental effects. He also points out that the program does not target plant germ cells and therefore would not transfer hereditary traits.
Given the explosive nature of this innovation, DARPA emphasises the positive aspects of its research. For example, the website of the agency: " National security can be rapidly threatened by natural threats to the agricultural system, including pathogens, drought, floods and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state and non-state actors. Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these attacks by applying targeted therapies to mature plants whose effects are expressed on relevant time scales, i.e. within a single growing season. "
These comments are intended to reassure but do not calm the concern of renowned scientists and lawyers who published an article in the form of an alert in the journal on 2 October. Science.
Criticism focuses on the very nature of the objectives pursued. Today, DARPA insists on its intention to react to an event in order to guarantee food security, and therefore national security. But nothing prevents us from imagining that the same technologies might not become common practice in agriculture. Farmers could then enlist armies of insects carrying modified genes to fight predators on their crops or improve their plant production.
This is the fear of Guy Reeves, co-author of the article in Science and specialist in evolutionary biology at the Max Planck Institute. For him, Insect Allies could become a standard for farmers. But the changes brought about by what he calls " these horizontal agents of genetic alteration of the environment "would likely extend to neighbouring fields of organic, non-genetically modified crops. He goes on to say: "If this technology works, almost by definition, national governments will not be able to control its spread. ".
Furthermore, according to the authors of this article, the Insect Allies could be interpreted as a potential violation of the Convention International Biological Weapons Convention. There is, in their view, a significant risk of this programme being used for purposes other than peaceful purposes. All the more so since one of the key elements of the programme is based on the use of insects, making it a weapon that could be deployed cheaply by malicious actors.
It should be pointed out that, since the emergence of new techniques such as CRISPR, which simplify gene manipulation and make it very economical, biological and bioterrorism risks have multiplied.
The threat is serious because, according to experts, it will be almost impossible to track and monitor all the experiments carried out in makeshift laboratories or even in garages. For Todd Kuiken, a genetic engineering specialist at the University of North Carolina, quoted by the MIT reviewThe danger does not only come from the usual biological vectors such as viruses or other pathogens. It also comes from " more exotic biological attacks "such as an insect that has been modified to eliminate a country's staple food crop.
Already, in February 2016 the report The CIA's annual Global Threat Assessment had surprised many. The American Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had in fact added gene editing to the list of threats posed by " weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation ». CRISPR thus appears alongside other more conventional threats such as North Korean nuclear tests, chemical warfare in Syria, the new Russian intercontinental missiles, etc.
For Clapper, CRISPR is a threatening technology: " Given the widespread diffusion, low cost and rapid development of this dual-use technology, its intentional or unintentional diversion can have far-reaching implications, both economically and in terms of national security. ». He goes on to say: " The fact that research on gene editing is being conducted in countries with different regulatory or ethical standards from those of Western countries probably increases the risk of creating potentially dangerous biological products or agents. "
The risk is such that some scientific journals are reluctant to publish articles by researchers on genetic manipulations deemed dangerous. This is what happened earlier this year when two University of Alberta researchers and co-founders of a New York-based pharmaceutical company claimed they could revive the smallpox virus. The virus had killed hundreds of millions of people before the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980. The article of the two researchers had been rejected by two major journals before being published by PLOS One. Their paper demonstrated that a deadly pathogen such as smallpox can be synthesized at a cost of approximately 100,000 $. What struck the scientific community was that the article was a bit too detailed in explaining how this could be done. MIT biochemist Kevin Esvelt, for example, has wrote on October 4 that the threat is so serious that we should not even talk about it. With advances in DNA assembly, " any human with an Internet connection can access the genetic blueprints of viruses that could kill millions. "
Clearly, in the field of biotechnologies, progress continues to advance with its share of hope and concern. It is an illusion to think that we can oppose progress. All attempts to do so have failed for centuries. On the other hand, it is to be hoped that scientists, especially those involved in institutional programmes such as DARPA, will not mislead the public about the nature of the risks that their work may pose. While the army of small insects trained to save crops and human food is a pretty fairy tale, in the background, the worst nightmares are inevitably there.