“Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?”. This is the question asked by Guy Reeves et al. in a policy forum published in Science today. The evolutionary geneticist from the Max Planck Institute and his German and French coauthors doubt that the Insect Allies program funded by Darpa in the US will realize significant agricultural benefits, e.g. in relation to drought, frost, flooding, herbicide, salinity, or disease. They fear, indeed, that it will be “widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their delivery, which – if true – would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention.”
The program aims to disperse viruses engineered to perform gene editing of already planted crops by using insect-based delivery. Think of leafhoppers (or whiteflies or aphids) infecting maize (or tomato plants) with CRISPR-carrying viruses, directly in fields. This is called horizontal-environmental-genetic-alteration. Sounds like sci-fi, isn’t it?
According to Reeves and colleagues, “all the prominently hypothesized benefits to routine peacetime agriculture could probably be realized through spraying” without the involvement of insects, and the same could be argued for defensive or emerging applications.
They are afraid that “the mere announcement of the Insect Allies Program may motivate other countries to develop their own capabilities in this arena.” My main concern, however, is that the mere existence of the program could breed a new generation of scary stories and urban legends about CRISPR being used for evil.