From now on you will have to look at the plants that bloom in our gardens or in our countryside with a different eye. They may be spies. James Bond hadn't even thought of that. A programme of the US Army Research Agency (DARPA) is being launched to genetically modify plants to turn them into spy sensors and send useful information in case of a crisis.
Ne regularly mention DARPA's research in our columns. It is true that they are often innovative, but also very disturbing. This " Agency for Advanced Defence Research Projects "is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for research and development of new technologies for military use. It was created at the instigation of President Eisenhower in response to Russian Sputnik in the late 1950s. What used to be called ARPA was responsible for many technological innovations, including the Arpanet, which will become the Internet you use every day. DARPA develops, alone or in partnership with the best researchers, with budgets of several hundred million dollars, robots, brain implants, sophisticated aircraft and drones, in short, a whole arsenal of technologies intended primarily for the U.S. military. In recent years, it has deployed significant resources in the biotechnology sector. It is in this capacity that the agency revealed at the end of last year that it was working on a project of the craziest kind: theAdvanced Plant Technologies (APT). The idea is to genetically modify plants to turn them into spy sensors.
The key to military defence, as we have known since the dawn of time, is intelligence. Every military seeks timely, accurate and precise information. To meet this objective, it is easy to imagine that the American army, through DARPA, is investing massively in the development of very powerful electronic and mechanical sensors. As such, it is working on satellites to observe sensitive areas, seismographs to record the slightest nuclear test anywhere in the world, electronic intelligence systems and so on. But the world is becoming more and more complex and the monitoring activity must be as distributed as possible. This is not a simple task.
This is why the idea came up to use what exists widely in nature. DARPA's new Advanced Plant Technologies program envisions seemingly simple plants as the next generation of intelligence gatherers. A statement of DARPA states that " The program will continue to develop technologies for robust, plant-based sensors that are autonomous in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing equipment. ".
The idea of the Agency is to exploit the natural mechanisms of plants to detect and respond to environmental stimuli and extend them to detect the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation and even electromagnetic signals. To do this, the PTA states that it wants to "...develop and implement a system to detect the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation and even electromagnetic signals. modifying plant genomes to program them for specific types of detection and to trigger discrete response mechanisms in the presence of relevant stimuli, in a manner that does not compromise the ability of plants to grow; and ".
The idea may be crazy, but it's not stupid. Indeed, if DARPA's researchers succeed in their challenge, the army will have an exceptional detection system, which will operate without external power, robust, particularly discreet and easy to distribute anywhere. Military use is a priority for DARPA, but the agency points out that civilian needs could usefully benefit from this innovation. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is pollution sensors.
" Plants are very sensitive to their environment and show natural physiological reactions to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also, in some cases, to touch, chemicals, pests and pathogens. "says Blake Bextine, DARPA Program Manager for the PTA. According to the scientists in charge of this dossier, new molecular, modelling and genetic editing techniques (such as CRISPR Cas9) could make it possible to reprogram the detection and communication capabilities of plants for a wide range of stimuli.
The objective is to modify multiple and complex traits to give plants new capacities that allow them to perceive and report numerous stimuli. However, to be successful, the program must also consider how the modified plants distribute internal resources and compete in natural environments. Previous experiments of this type have reduced the capacity of modified plants by siphoning off the resources needed to maintain them. DARPA therefore states that PTA will seek to improve the way plants collect and distribute resources, and optimize their physical condition so that modified plants thrive despite anticipated interactions with natural stressors such as microbes, animals, insects and other plants.
At the end of December, DARPA launched a call for proposal to synthetic biology laboratories in order to " Develop an iterative and efficient system for designing, building and testing models so that we get an easily adaptable platform that can be applied to a wide range of scenarios. ». « It will be up to the researchers applying to the PTA to determine which plants, stimuli and modifications to pursue as proof of concept. "continues the statement.
This type of research cannot fail to be worrying in view of the health and environmental risks it is likely to trigger. This is why the call for projects specifies that "theInitial work on the program will take place in confined laboratories and greenhouses, as well as in simulated natural environments, and will comply with all applicable federal regulations, with additional oversight by institutional biosafety committees.. "In later phases, experiments will be conducted in the field under close health control, at least that is what the agency promises.
On the other hand, it says nothing about the possible perverse effects of this type of manipulation. Indeed, the modified plants could be used as sensors of information other than that defined in the specifications. A scenario in the Black Mirror where plants would be the ubiquitous spies in our daily lives is it to be feared? Time will tell.