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Biological warfare with insects and genetic viruses?

by Leo Frühschütz (comments: 0)

Dice forming the word risk
Symbol picture © Pixabay

The US Department of Defense's DARPA research agency is funding a research program that uses insects to release genetically modified viruses that can alter the genome of crops in the field. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and the Universities of Freiburg and Montpellier warn that such a system is relatively easy to manipulate and can be used as a biological weapon.

At the end of 2016, DARPA launched a call for proposals for the research program with a budget of 23 mn euros and a duration of four years. According to the Max Planck Institute, the scientists involved are investigating whether they can transfer the gene-edited viruses to maize and tomatoes using grasshoppers, aphids and white flies. According to DARPA, the findings from the program will be used in agriculture, for example to protect crops from drought, frost, flooding, pesticides or diseases and thus to ensure food security in the USA in the event of a crisis.

Scientists warn that method could be used as a weapon

For the scientists from Plön, Freiburg and Montpellier there are no plausible reasons to use insects to spread genetic material. They criticise the fact that the findings from the 'Insect Allies' programme could be easily modified and adapted for biological warfare. "For example, genes could be rendered non-functional - which is usually easier than optimizing them. It is therefore not even necessary to further develop the method; it is sufficient to simplify it in order to use it as a weapon," says Guy Reeves from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.

The scientists call for a "broad social, scientific and legal debate" on the programme. They see this as a possible violation of the Biological Weapons Convention. In the Science magazine, they have now made their concerns public.

Please also read: Agro genetic engineering: Nothing new on the fields


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