It sounds like something from an anti-science conspiracy theory website, but instead it's been published in one of the world's most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Five scientists and ethicists have expressed alarm that a new transgenic technology is a cover for biological weapons. The authors of an article in Science are far from anti-GM campaigners, but fear we're seeing an attempt to breach international conventions against weapons of mass destruction.
Humans have been unknowingly modifying crop genetics for thousands of years. More recently, transgenic technologies have increased the power of the process, but this currently involves “vertical transfer”, changing seeds' genomes prior to mass production. Using viruses to edit the chromosomes of crops already in the field is potentially much faster and could allow for more flexibility.
Horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs), as these theoretical viruses have been called, will inevitably meet plenty of opposition. However, Dr Guy Reeves of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Biology and his co-authors are specifically concerned about HEGAAs' dispersal method.
The most obvious way to get the HEGAAs to the plants is through spraying, as is done with chemical counters to weeds, parasites, and other pests. However, a research program, known as Insect Allies, is underway to use insects such as leafhoppers or aphids instead. This will make it much more difficult to contain any modification – spray drifting onto neighboring fields is a frequent problem, but nothing compared to the potential of insects to disperse to places they are not welcome.
Particularly alarming is that Insect Allies, which has the goal of getting at least three transgenes expressed in crops such as maize or tomatoes, received $27 million of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the arm of the US military that supports scientific research. DARPA has a proud record of supporting research with more civilian applications than military ones, but its involvement in this project has aroused Reeves' fears.
After all, if insect-borne viruses can be used to modify crops to increase yields or enhance drought resistance, what is to stop them being made to do the exact reverse? For a malicious power wanting to destroy a nation's food supply, insects are probably a much more effective method of spreading damaging HEGAAs than sprays.
“It is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance US agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term),” the authors argue. “As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes.” This, they argue, puts Insect Allies in contravention of the Biological Weapons Convention, yet until now, it has received minimal attention.