Insect Allies and the role of DARPA in scientific research

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Last month, a Pentagon research program called Insect Allies burst into the public conversation after a team of research scientists and legal scholars published an article detailing their concerns and critiques of the project in Science magazine. Insect Allies is run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and was announced in 2016 with the stated goal of “pursuing scalable, readily deployable, and generalizable countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the food supply with the goals of preserving the U.S. crop system”. As indicated by its eponymous project name, the Insect Allies research program seeks to develop insects that carry gene editing viruses, allowing for rapid genetic modification of plant food sources. The Insect Allies program exemplifies both the pros and cons of DARPA work. The described project leapfrogs current technological paradigms, promoting a next stage of synthetic biology work. However at the same time, it seeks to create a technology with problematic potential military applications. The battle between basic research and the development of military technologies is one that has dogged DARPA since its inception. As the theoretical and empirical knowledge in the fields of genetic modification and synthetic biology improve, it is imperative that novel technologies are developed with the appropriate ethical and moral oversight and that scientists consider the ramifications of their work.

Origins and Changes of DARPA

Science and the military have long been interwoven, a process that was formalized in the U.S. in the past century. In 1947, President Truman created the Department of Defense, in part to fund scientific research. A decade later President Eisenhower highlighted the importance of science in national defense with the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed DARPA in 1972). DARPA’s creation was in direct response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, and given the mission statement of “preventing technological surprises like Sputnik, and developing innovative, high-risk research ideas that hold the potential for significant technological payoffs”.

In its early years, DARPA funded significant amounts of basic and foundational research that did not have immediate applications. However, in 1973 Congress passed the Mansfield Amendment, preventing the Defense Department from funding any research without “a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation”. The amendment was contentious at the time of its passing, with Presidential Science Advisor Lee DuBridge telling a congressional subcommittee that the amendment had negatively affected the quality of research projects because it is not possible to prove the relevance of a project, and therefore it is wrong to prevent an agency from funding basic research it sees as valuable. Passage of the amendment fundamentally reshaped the U.S. research funding landscape, and projects consisting of upwards of 60% of DOD research funds were cancelled or moved to other agencies. In place of basic research DARPA has shifted to funding research with direct military applications. These projects have often fallen into the realm of “dual-use” technologies, having both civilian and military uses. Successful examples of this strategy include funding projects that evolved into the internet and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Current research span from projects with clear civilian applications, such as a multitude of projects researching the next generation of medical technologies, to those that are weapons research with purely military potential.

The Insect Allies program

Agriculture is one of the predominant industries in the U.S., making the U.S. a net exporter and world’s largest supplier of a variety of agricultural products including beef, corn, wheat, poultry and pork. The importance of American agriculture to both national security and the security of its global allies and trade partners is well recognized by national security officials, especially in the context of climate change and the potential for growing scarcity. The primary threats to agriculture are disease and weather related events. While these can be mitigated through pesticides, clearing of crops, quarantine, and selective breeding, current strategies are both destructive and time consuming.

The Insect Allies program has three focus areas; viral manipulation, insect vector optimization, and selective gene therapy in mature plants. Through application and combination of these technologies Insect Allies would function by genetically modifying already growing plants through utilization of “horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs). Traditionally, genetic modification involves changing the genes of a parent organism and propagating its offspring. This process is essentially the same as the selective breeding practiced in agriculture for generations. While this is effective, it is a time-consuming practice as you must breed successive generations of your population of interest.

Through HEGAAs, Insect Allies completely revamp the process. Instead of creating a population of interest from scratch, HEGAAs allow scientists to modify an existing population. If you wanted to create a pesticide-resistant crop, the traditional strategy would be to insert the gene for pesticide resistance into one plant and then collect its seeds and use them to grow an entire field of pesticide resistant plants. With HEGAA technology, farmers could make an already grown field resistant by modifying each individual plant on a broad scale.

Criticism of the Insect Allies program

The authors of the Science article critique the Insect Allies program over a variety of issues, ranging from biological to ethical or moral dilemmas. The article raises issue with both the use of wide-scale genetic modification technologies as well as with the application of insects as vectors as opposed to already existing technologies such as overhead spraying. The use of wide-scale genetic modification is a line which has yet to be crossed, and currently lacks a regulatory path. While research into gene modifying technology is ongoing and real-world tests inevitable, these tests are a contentious issue that is currently being debated. Moreover, agricultural products modified by HEGAAs have no current path to the market. The combination of seemingly little thought in the program towards the regulation that would be necessary for the described application of their technology as well as the existence of lead the authors to suspect that Insect Allies is being developed for other means. While a population of gene-modifying insects could be used to help U.S. crops survive weather-changes or pesticides, they could also potentially be applied to crops of other nations in war. Biological Weapons were banned in 1972, and currently no nations have (publicly) developed them.While the technologies being developed by Insect Allies are described as “for peaceful means”, the stated goals are achievable through already existing technologies. Furthermore, international competition with Insect Allies may accelerate crossing the line between wartime and peacetime technology.

Soon after publication of the Science article, Dr. Blake Bextine, program manager for Insect Allies, released a statement refuting many of these points. He stated that DARPA moved into agricultural work as it is an important aspect of both national and international security, and that the work falls under DARPA’s charter to develop fundamentally new technologies that leapfrog existing capabilities. Moreover, he affirmed that Insect Allies has no plan for open release, and that regulatory systems would be developed and had been planned since the start of the program.

What does the future hold

The Science article’s authors note that they would be worried about Insect Allies whether it was under a civilian or military purview, but it is impossible to ignore the implications of synthetic biology and genetic modification research to the military. DARPA’s strategy of generating high-risk, high-reward research is both effective and engrained into the DNA of the organization, however so is the fact that DARPA is a defense organization.

When DARPA was founded (as ARPA), it was to promote high-risk scientific research that would increase U.S. soft power internationally. After the Mansfield amendment, these goals were shifted towards applied research instead of basic, and with them a focus on defense-oriented research. An advantage of basic research is that it takes time to develop, allowing the findings, and their ramifications, to percolate throughout the global scientific community. The quintessential example of this is regulation of recombinant DNA technologies. Soon after recombinant DNA technology was developed, the 1975 Asilomar Conference was held to establish voluntary guidelines that would ensure the safety of a game-changing scientific technology. As synthetic biology technological development has accelerated, the discussion around the regulation of synthetic biology and genetic modification technology has also begun, and is currently ongoing.

While it is impossible to argue with the massive benefits that civilian applications of DARPA developed technologies have provided, synthetic biology and genetic modification technologies have the potential to enact immense changes globally. The environment and application of a technology has a huge potential to influence its use and the way it is viewed by the public for generations. Insect Allies program states that it is focusing on developing insect-based HEGAAs technologies as a means of pushing development of gene-editing technologies to increase food security in a transparent manner that promotes open published research. It is critical that the Insect Allies program is held to this standard, and that regulation by the global scientific community is allowed to impact the direction and application of these potentially game-changing technologies.

Originally published at sciencepolicyforall.wordpress.com https://sciencepolicyforall.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/insect-allies-and-the-role-of-darpa-in-scientific-research/

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