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Biomedical Applications » Biological Weapons/Biodefence

Title: US Military Research That Disperses GM Viruses to Plants Could be Misused as Bioweapon
Publication date: October 19, 2018
Posting date: October 19, 2018

 THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE


Dear Friends and Colleagues

US military research that disperses GM viruses to plants could be misused as bioweapon

An ongoing research programme called the Insect Allies Program, funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to use insects to disperse infectious viruses that have been genetically engineered to alter the chromosomes of plants through ‘genome editing’ directly in field. (Item 1). Until now, genetic engineering of commercial seeds occurred only in laboratories, introducing modifications in the targeted crops. The new DARPA approach would allow for genetic modifications to be implemented quickly and at a large scale on crops that are already growing in fields.Maize and tomato plants are reportedly being used in current experiments, while dispersal insect species include leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids. The DARPA work plan will culminate in large-scale greenhouse demonstrations of the fully functional system including insect-dispersed viruses (Item 2).

DARPA asserts that developments resulting from the Insect Allies Program are intended for routine agricultural use, for example for protecting crops against droughts, frost, flooding, pesticides or diseases. An opinion paper published in the journal Science, however, warns that the regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound, and call for a broad social, scientific and legal debate of the issue. The authors highlight that the programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles.

The authors contend that the knowledge to be gained from this programme appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies in either the short or long term. They express concern about the lack of discussion in official Insect Allies materials on the regulation of both the viral technology and the recipient crops. They cite concerns that it could affect the seeds of plants and disrupt future growing seasons(Item 3). The authors also suggest that releasing genetically modified viruses could potentially infect organisms beyond those they are aimed at.

The lead author describes the technology as being actually more feasible as a weapon to kill plants than as an agricultural tool. The authors highlight the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention(BWC), which prevents the development and stockpiling of biological weapons. They explain that the technology in the Insect Allies programme could be harnessed as a weapon to, say, disrupt crop production, by simply removing the safeguards DARPA requires, for instance, that insect vectors die within a few weeks of their release. The authors warn that if its research cannot be justified, the Insect Allies programme may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and a breach of the BWC (Item 4). They urge the US government to make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.

 

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Item 1

AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH, OR A NEW BIOWEAPON SYSTEM?

R. G. Reeves, S. Voeneky, D. Caetano-Anollés, F. Beck, C. Boëte
Science
Vol. 362, Issue 6410, pp. 35-37
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7664
5 Oct 2018
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6410/35?rss%253D1=

Summary

Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species' chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next. In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields. This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs) into ecosystems are profound. Further, this program stipulates that the means of delivery of these viral HEGAAs into the environment should be insect-based dispersion. In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term). Furthermore, there has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits. As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).


Item 2

PRESS RELEASE: A STEP TOWARDS BIOLOGICAL WARFARE WITH INSECTS?
A project by a research agency of the US Department of Defense could easily be misused for developing biological weapons

4 Oct 2018
http://web.evolbio.mpg.de/HEGAAs/press-relases--summaries/english.html

Genome Editing (Crispr) Jurisprudence

Owing to present-day armed conflicts, the general public is well aware of the terrifying effects of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the effects of biological weapons have largely disappeared from public awareness. A project funded by a research agency of the US Department of Defense is now giving rise to concerns about being possibly misused for the purpose of biological warfare. The programme called ‘Insect Allies’ intends for insects to be used for dispersing genetically modified viruses to agricultural plants in fields. These viruses would be engineered so they can alter the chromosomes of plants through ‘genome editing’. This would allow for genetic modifications to be implemented quickly and at a large scale on crops that are already growing in fields, such as corn. In the journal Science, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön and the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution de Montpellier along with legal scholars from the University of Freiburg point out that this type of system could be more easily developed for use as a biological weapon than for the proposed agricultural purpose.

It is argued by the programs funders, that genome editing using synthetic viruses will open up unprecedented possibilities for changing the properties of crop plants already growing in fields. Plants could, for example, be genetically altered to nearly instantly become less susceptible to pests or droughts. Until now, genetic engineering of commercial seeds always occurred in laboratories. With farmers planting seeds, needing to anticipate what environmental conditions will likely arise during a growing season. This means that, in the case of an unexpected drought, only farmers who had already planted drought-resistant seeds would gain a benefit. However, the originators of this project claim that genetic engineering in fields would offer farmers the possibility to alter the genetic properties of their crops at any time. Use of this technology would represent a radical break with many existing farming practices, potentially jeopardizing their coexistence.

At the end of 2016, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) put out a call for tenders for a 4-year research work plan. This program has distributed a total of 27 million US dollars, aiming to develop genetically modified viruses that can genetically edit crops in fields. The first of three consortia, drawn from 14 American research facilities, announced their participation in mid-2017. Maize and tomato plants are reportedly being used in current experiments, while dispersal insect species mentioned include leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids. The DARPA work plan will culminate in large-scale greenhouse demonstrations of the fully functional system including insect-dispersed viruses.

Missing public debate

In public statements, DARPA asserts that developments resulting from the Insect Allies Program are intended for routine agricultural use, for example for protecting crops against droughts, frost, flooding, pesticides or diseases. However, most countries using such technology would require comprehensive changes to approval processes for genetically modified organisms. Farmers, seed producers and not least the general public would also be massively affected by a use of such methods. “There is hardly any public debate about the far-reaching consequences of proposing the development of this technology. The Insect Allies programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles,” says Guy Reeves of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön.

However, scientists and legal scholars from Plön, Freiburg and Montpellier believe that a broad social, scientific and legal debate of the issue is urgently required. Among other concerns it is their opinion, that no compelling reasons have been presented by DARPA for the use of insects as an uncontrolled means of dispersing synthetic viruses into the environment. Furthermore, they argue the findings of the Insect Allies Program could be more easily used for biological warfare than for routine agricultural use. “It is very much easier to kill or sterilize a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” explains Reeves. Considering these, and other, concerns articulated in the Science article, the DARPA programme risks being perceived as a program that is not justified for peaceful purposes, as is required according to the Biological Weapons Convention. This, in turn, may lead to other countries developing their own weapons in this area.

In international law, the decisive factor is whether a biological research programme exclusively serves peaceful purposes. The Biological Weapons Convention, to which more than 180 States are parties, obliges all parties to never under any circumstances develop or produce agents or toxins of types or in quantities “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes”. In addition, the Convention prohibits to develop or produce “weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.” The authors argue that the insects used to deliver the viral agents might be perceived as means of delivery in terms of the Convention.

Biological Weapons Convention

“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes. The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible. This is particularly true considering that this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare,” explains Silja Vöneky, a law professor from Freiburg University.

The authors of the Science article are also concerned that the Insect Allies Program might encourage other states to increase their own research activities in this field – regardless of whether this program proves to be technically successful or not. Past efforts for banning the development of biological weapons have shown how important it is that this ban be applied by states such as the USA, who are considered an example by other countries. Based on this, the authors propose that the US should make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.


Item 3

QUESTIONS RAISED ABOUT DARPA-FUNDED CROP PROGRAM

by Abby Olena
The Scientist
4 Oct 2018
https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/questions-raised-about-darpa-funded-crop-program-64898

Critics of an agricultural research initiative cite concerns about possible weaponization of the resulting technology, which would use infected insects to deliver genetically modified viruses to plants.

An ongoing basic research program from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called Insect Allies faces criticism in an op-ed published today (October 4) in Science. The commentary’s authors express concerns about the development and possible dispersal of insect vectors to deliver genetically modified viruses to crops. Namely, they say the technology could be seized for the development of biological weapons.

“Although we are not ourselves accusing DARPA of weaponizing the program, our main concern with this is that it could give the appearance of weaponization to other countries who may themselves want to establish their own programs like this,” coauthor Derek Caetano-Anollés, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, tells The Scientist. 

Insect Allies participants and supporters contend that the research has appropriate precautions in place and that it could lead to solutions to the growing challenges facing agricultural production.

“We’re doing fundamental research [with] viruses and insect vectors to see if we can use them to confer positive traits to plants that in the future could be used to help protect . . . important US crops,” says Bryce Falk, a plant biologist at University of California, Davis, who receives funding from the Insect Allies program. All of his team’s research takes place within a Biosafety Level 3 facility, so nothing is released into the environment.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an arm of the Department of Defense that funds research projects to develop new technology for defensive uses. Its Insect Alliesprogram solicited proposals from researchers in late 2016, with the intention of funding projects that would use insects to deliver viruses carrying specific traits to modify crops during one growing season. For instance, researchers could engineer a plant virus to deliver modified genes to adult maize plants that would help them cope with drought or disease. They would use insect vectors to deliver the virus, leading to expression of the chosen protective genes in the adult plants during a single growing season.

In 2017, DARPA awarded four years of funding, a total of about $30 million, to four research teams in the US.

The authors of the critique say this is the first program to fund the development of viruses specifically designed for possible release into the environment to edit the genomes of target species, possibly with CRISPR-based strategies. Their concern is that the application could affect the seeds of plants and disrupt future growing seasons.

More generally, the critics also suggest that releasing genetically modified viruses could potentially infect organisms beyond those they’re aimed at. “If we choose to use this technology, this is something that you could see arising again and again and again, not just in agriculture,” says coauthor R. Guy Reeves, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.

Entomologist Blake Bextine, DARPA program manager for Insect Allies, says transgenerational genetic modifications are not in the works. “All of our teams are actually working with transient expression systems,” meaning that the introduced genetic material does not alter chromosomes or the germ line, and thus would not affect future plant generations.

“It’s a very useful idea to use transient expression,” says Vitaly Citovsky, a plant biologist at Stony Brook University in New York who is not affiliated with the Insect Allies program. “Most plant viruses are not seed-transmissible, which means if a plant is infected by the virus, no matter what the virus does, even if [it] genetically modifies plants stably using CRISPR-Cas9, the virus does not get to the seeds.”

Caetano-Anollés, Reeves, and colleagues also express concern about the lack of discussion in official Insect Allies materials on the regulation of both the viral technology and the recipient crops. They highlight the extra layer of complication added by using insects, which would have to be raised near the target farms and have some kind of kill switch built in to ensure that they don’t reproduce, and propose spraying viruses as a simpler, alternative application system.

Falk explains that just spraying a virus on likely wouldn’t allow it to infect the plant. “To enter plants, viruses have to get through the tough cell wall,” he says. “The wounding of the plant cell is in the vast majority of cases achieved by the vector entering the plant cell to feed, and in [most] cases this is by insect vectors—typically aphids, whiteflies, or leafhoppers.”

Additionally, the authors discuss the Biological Weapons Convention, which prevents the development and stockpiling of biological weapons and was ratified by 22 countries of the United Nations in 1975. They write that a 2012 updateto this agreement might apply to the intent of the Insect Allies program, as it uses insects to infect plants with genetically modified viruses. Caetano-Anollés, Reeves, and colleagues explain that the technology in the Insect Allies program could be harnessed as a weapon to, say, disrupt crop production, by simply removing the safeguards DARPA requires—for instance, that insect vectors die within a few weeks of their release.

In answer to questions about regulating the developing technology, Bextine points to the ongoing involvement in the project of representatives from regulatory agencies, such as the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. He adds that the project specifically has a nongovernment team in place to help DARPA address the ethical, legal, and social implications of the program, which, he says, is specifically in line with guidelines from the Biological Weapons Convention. 

Despite the differing viewpoints, both sides are willing to engage in discussion about the Insect Allies program. “The intent of the piece . . . is that we want this to have more attention,” says Caetano-Anollés.

Academic research is “supposed to bring up questions and have these types of conversations,” says Bextine. “I’m comfortable doing that, and I’m glad that we have the opportunity to have the conversation first and foremost.”

“These types of dialogues are extremely productive,” says Daniel M. Gerstein, a biosecurity policy researcher for the RAND Corporation. “There are really legitimate reasons that you would want to promote crops with certain capabilities and . . . there are legitimate concerns to be raised.”

 

Item 4

US MILITARY PLAN TO SPREAD VIRUSES USING INSECTS COULD CREATE ‘NEW CLASS OF BIOLOGICAL WEAPON’, SCIENTISTS WARN

by  Josh Gabbatiss
Independent
5 Oct 2018
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/us-military-plan-biological-weapons-insect-allies-virus-crop-darpa-a8568996.html

Insects could be turned into “a new class of biological weapon” using new US military plans, experts have warned. 

The Insect Allies programme aims to use bugs to disperse genetically modified (GM) viruses to crops. 

Such action will have profound consequences and could pose a major threat to global biosecurity, according to a team that includes specialist scientists and lawyers.

However, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which is responsible for developing military technologies in the US, says it is merely trying to alter crops growing in fields by using viruses to transmit genetic changes to plants.

In theory, this rapid engineering would allow farmers to adapt to changing conditions, for example by inserting drought-resistance genes into corn instead of planting pre-engineered seeds.

But this seemingly inoffensive goal has been slammed by the scientists, who say the plan is simply dangerous and that insects loaded with synthetic viruses will be difficult to control.

They also say that despite being in operation since 2016 and distributing $27m in funds to scientists, Darpa has failed to properly justify the existence of such a programme.

“Given that Darpa is a military agency, we find it surprising that the obvious and concerning dual-use aspects of this research have received so little attention,” Felix Beck, a lawyer at the University of Freiburg, told The Independent.

Dr Guy Reeves, an expert in GM insects at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, said that there has been hardly any debate about the technology and the programme remains largely unknown “even in expert circles”.

He added that despite the stated aims of the programme, it would be far more straightforward using the technology as a biological weapon than for the routine agricultural use suggested by Darpa.

“It is very much easier to kill or sterilise a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant,” explains Reeves.

Experiments are reportedly already underway using insects such as aphids and whiteflies to treat corn and tomato plants.

Mr Beck said he and fellow experts were not suggesting that the US military wanted to create biological weapons, but that the proposed agricultural uses are “simply not plausible for a number of reasons”.

Firstly, they note that if farmers wanted to use genetically modified viruses to improve their crops, there is no reason not to use conventional spraying equipment.

They also noted that despite Darpa stating that no insects used should survive longer than two weeks, if such safeguards were not in place “the spread could in principle be unlimited”.

Mr Beck added: “The quite obvious question of whether the viruses selected for development should or should not be capable of plant-to-plant transmission – and plant-to-insect-to-plant transmission – was not addressed in the Darpa work plan at all”.

Making their case in the journal Science, the team noted that if Insect Allies’ research cannot be justified, it could be perceived as breaching the UN’s Biological Weapons ConventionMaking their case in the journal Science, the team noted that if Insect Allies’ research cannot be justified, it could be perceived as breaching the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention.

“Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes,” explained Professor Silja Voeneky, a specialist in international law at Freiburg University.

“The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by Darpa are not plausible. 

“This is particularly true considering this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare.”

To prevent any suspicion and to avoid encouraging other nations to develop their own technologies in this area, the authors of the study have called for more transparency from Darpa if it intends to pursue such programmes.

A spokesperson from Darpa defended the programme, explaining that using insects to apply these gene altering treatments could provide advantages over sprays.

“Most importantly in this context, sprayed treatments are impractical for introducing protective traits on a large scale and potentially infeasible if the spraying technology cannot access the necessary plant tissues with specificity, which is a known problem,” they said.

“If Insect Allies succeeds, it will offer a highly specific, efficient, safe, and readily deployed means of introducing transient protective traits into only the plants intended, with minimal infrastructure required.”


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