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A step toward insect-borne biological weapons?

US research program could easily be misused for biological warfare

Freiburg, Oct 05, 2018

A step toward insect-borne biological weapons?

Photo: Maciej Olszewski/Fotolia

A research program run by the US Department of Defense awakens fears that the research could be used for biological warfare. The project, called Insect Allies, aims to use insects to transport plant viruses, spreading them to crops. The viruses are able to alter plants already growing in the fields - such as maize and tomatoes - fast and significantly, using genome editing. Professor Dr. Silja Vöneky, Chair of International Law and Ethics of Law at the University of Freiburg, along with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in the German town of Plön and from the University of Montpellier in France, has published a study on the matter in the journal Science. She stresses that such a system can be manipulated and used as a biological weapon relatively easily.

Genome editing opens up a broad span of possibilities to alter the DNA of the plants we rely on for food. For example, it can be used to make crops give higher yields or to make them more resistant to pests or drought. Such changes to plant DNA have so far only been made in the laboratory. Once the plants are growing in the fields, it is too late. But at the end of 2016 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - part of the US Department of Defense which finances defense research projects - called for researchers for a new four-year research program. The funding was for projects aiming to release genetically-modified viruses which could in turn modify the DNA of crops growing in the fields. The researchers involved are investigating whether to transmit the viruses via grasshoppers, aphids or whitefly to maize and tomatoes. DARPA says the results are meant to help agriculture to protect crops from drought, frost, flooding, pesticides and diseases.

However, the researchers from Plön, Freiburg and Montpellier say it would be appropriate to first hold a social, scientific and legal debate on the research. They are critical of the use of insects to spread genetic material, because the knowledge gained from the Insect Allies program could be re-purposed relatively easily and used for biological warfare. For instance, it could be used to switch off genes - which is usually easier than optimizing them. That means a simplified version of the program could be used to make the plants die.

In international law, the decisive factor is whether a biological research program exclusively serves peaceful purposes. The Biological Weapons Convention, to which more than 180 States area parties, obliges all parties no never under any circumstances develop or produce agents or toxins “of types and 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.

“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,” Vöneky explains. The authors of the Science study also fear that the program may encourage other countries to step up their own research in this area.


Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology press release


R G. Reeves, S. Voeneky, D. Caetano-Anolles, F. Beck, C. Boete (2018): Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system? In: Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7664


For further information


Professor Dr. Silja Vöneky
University of Freiburg
Phone: 0761/203-97558 /-2244

Dr. Guy Reeves
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön
Phone:  +49 4522/763-297