Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?   Science Vol. 362, Issue 6410, pp. 35-37DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7664

This site is intended to accompany the above publication. Without reading this short article you may find that this site will not make a lot of sense.

The purpose of this site is to contribute towards fostering an informed and public debate about this type of technology 

Open access link to original article


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If the above links are not working this link will provide an unformatted version 

 summaries  available GermanSpanish1, Spanish2 French  中文  

 (not necessarily written by us)

Added 5th Feb: 

The Biological Weapons Convention is a major part of why for over 40 years the development or use of this type of capability has remained rare, as such the convention should be viewed as a success. 

However, in the view of Nicolas A. Sims (LSE) the principle ongoing fragility of the Convention stem not from legal or institutional issues, but flows from the failure of States to

This  sentiment  and its connection to the quote was copied from a chapter by Jez Littlewood (NPSIA) in;  Preventing Chemical Weapons. 2018

The link to the Insect Allies program, which is a topic of this website, is that even as this program approaches is half-way point there has regrettably been no attempt to explain how its claimed agricultural aims could be achieved without a much earlier proliferation of the knowledge necessary to generate a class of targetable biological weapons and their means of delivery (or to point to any farming group who thinks their aims are a good idea).


Added 24th January: 

In the original  Science publication we missed this earlier very interesting paper that includes numerous biosecurity experts as authors:-

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invested $110 million in synthetic biology in 2014, which accounted for almost 60% of funding for synthetic biology in the US that year, and this figure increases to67% when other Department of Defense funding is included (Kuiken, 2015). The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory has also invested in synthetic biology, albeit on a smaller scale, and mainly focussed on developing novel materials (DSTL, 2016). Defense agencies report that they are investing in these programs with a view to preventing or responding to particular threats. However, areas in which some agencies are investing (e.g. agriculture, gene drives, chemical production) could raise both public perception issues and have dual-use potentials. For example, DARPA’s Insect Allies Program intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, 2016b), with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens. However, it is plausible that such technologies could be used by others to harm targets. 

Wintle, Bonnie C, Christian R Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling, et al. “A Transatlantic Perspective on 20 Emerging Issues in Biological Engineering.”  ELife 6 (November 14, 2017): e30247.

Added 5th January: 

Insect Allies listed by Forbes Magazine by Jessica Baron as  one of "ten technologies that people should be aware of in the hopes of giving non-experts a window into what's going on in labs around the world.” Tech Ethics Issues We Should All Be Thinking About In 2019

An article written by Dr Christophe Boëte, one of the authors of the Science article, Les inquiétants scénarios de la biologie végétale high-tech aux États-Unis

Science article mentioned in an interesting way in the last 30 seconds of  Guardian long reads podcast written by Bernhard Warner

Added 5th November: 

In a Washington Post Editorial on the 4th Nov 2018 it was asserted by the Editorial Board that The skeptics say on their website that they worry the DARPA program could be “easily weaponized.” That seems a stretch.” .  

In response, we repost the text below that has remained part of our FAQ page since 3rd of  October in addition to this text. Both elaborate on just one of the scientific reasons why HEGAAs development risks early proliferation of the knowledge required for a targetable bioweapons ( a property that is not shared with most other techniques , including avant-garde ones like gene drive). 

Why do we assert that it is almost always easier to develop a HEGAA biological weapon system than an agricultural one ? 

  • To conceive  of a routine use in agriculture for HEGAAs  it will be necessary to build in multiple mechanisms to control the spatial and taxonomic spread of the viruses.  This will be complicated.
  • When developing a biological weapon, most if not all ‘safeguards’ or ‘independent kill switches’ can be left out.  Usefully the targeting of gene editing to your enemies crops is assured by the DNA sequence specificity of the 2 guide RNAs used by CRISPR (see Figure in Science paper, it is notable that the specificity of the guide sequences is one of the few elements that the insect allies program relies on which is in any way largely predictable )
  • While to kill or sterilise a plant can likely be achieved by disrupting a single suitable gene, more complex traits will probably require  inserting new genes or genes into plant chromosomes (examples repeatedly presented include resistance to drought, frost, flooding, salinity, herbicides, and plant disease).  In most circumstances it is more than x1000 times more efficient to cause gene disruption than gene insertions (eg Mao, Z., Bozzella, M., Seluanov, A. & Gorbunova, V. Comparison of nonhomologous end joining and homologous recombination in human cells. DNA Repair (Amst.) 7, 1765–1771 (2008) ).

Added 31st October: in recent media comments DARPA appears to be suggesting that gene editing of plant chromosomes by viruses was not a goal of their program from the start (i.e. HEGAAs development). We believe that this is unambiguously not the case- please click here and decide for yourself.

Consider what this publicly funded program is developing

Image credit: ,  reuse in accordance with USA.Gov policy

Genetically modified viruses to perform gene editing of crops in already-planted fields?

Genetically modified viruses intended to be dispersed into the environment using insects?

The DARPA  Insect Allies program

Some of recent coverage of the issue genetically modified viruses engineered to modify the genome of a second species  when released in to the environment (HEGAAs )

Insect Allies' Program Draws Criticism

Above is a very interesting and informative radio interview with one of the authors and the DARPA project manager.

Could We Turn Insects Into Biological Weapons?

Crop-protecting insects could be turned into bioweapons, critics warn 


Ist das die neue Biowaffe?

Alertan que Estados Unidos utiliza insectos como armas biológicas en cultivos

Scientists: Pentagon’s Plant-Virus Research Could Endanger World’s Food Supply

Cientistas alertam que programa militar dos EUA pode ser visto como arma biológica

Ученые заподозрили DARPA в разработке биологического оружия

The hard power imperative

GM바이러스 유포하는 곤충 개발

EUA estão tentando criar insetos como armas biológicas

Alertan que Estados Unidos utiliza insectos como armas biológicas en cultivos

Des insectes pour disséminer des virus : une arme incontrôlable ?

A government-funded research project using insects to genetically modify crops could trigger a 'biological arms race,' 

Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security.

The Pentagon is studying an insect army to defend crops. Critics fear a bioweapon.

Un artículo en ‘ cience' alerta de que EEUU podría estar probando armas biológicas usando insectos infectados con virus

「ついに米軍が“昆虫”を生物兵器に使いそう」学者が告発! 運び屋の虫が病気をバラまき遺伝子強制変換… 影響は未知数!?

Scathing Report Accuses the Pentagon of Developing an Agricultural Bioweapon

The US military is hacking insects with virus DNA, raising fears of dangerous new bio-weapons


Questions Raised About DARPA-Funded Crop Program

Kế hoạch đội quân côn trùng của Lầu Năm Góc

Des insectes pour transformer un champ en OGM : l'inquiétant projet de l'armée américaine

US plan to genetically alter crops via insects feared to be biological war plan

Scientists: US military program could be seen as bioweapon

The Pentagon is studying an insect army to defend crops, but critics fear a bioweapon

Scientists: US military program could be seen as bioweapon

Alerta por un programa militar para propagar virus con insectos

An international multi-disciplinary team of lawyers (University Freiburg) and scientists (Max-Planck-Institue in Plön and University Montpellier) argue the Insect Allies program is likely to have immediate impacts on global biosecurity (regardless of whether it proves technically successful or not).

“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.”

Image credit: Derek Caetano-Anollés 

This site provide an extended biological perspective on aspects of our recent Science article

The description of the 4 year ‘Insect Allies program that commenced in summer 2017 is almost exclusively based on United States Government documents and press releases from the funder (DARPA) and the 3 academic groups doing the research. 

download DARPA work plan 

(Reading pages 4-12 of the above document provides the best available description of the program we are aware if )

or mirrored here 

The Insect Allies program is the first to propose or fund the development of HEGAA viruses.

What are HEGAAs-horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents?

  • HEGAAs are viruses which have been genetically modified to gain a capacity to edit the chromosomes of a target species (e.g. plant or animal) when intentionally released into the environment
  • The word “horizontal” comes from their ability to be transmitted in the environment by infection 
  • The word “environmental” comes from the intention for these genetically modified viruses to be dispersed into the environment.
  • The words “genetic alteration agents” comes from the capacity to alter the chromosomes of a target species. This might be through causing  a random mutation or introducing a new DNA sequence.
  • The specificity of HEGAAs is dependent on two things (1) the range of species the genetically modified  virus can infect AND (2) the presence of the suitable DNA sequences in the plant chromosomes of cells that become infected. 
  • An example of an insect dispersed viral HEGAA which disrupts a specific plant gene  is illustrated in this figure below

Even as the halfway point of the Insect Allies program approaches, DARPA has chosen not to publicly describe in its response to our Science article what is the basis of  their having concluded that a developmental pathway exists that circumvents the early proliferation of biological weapons (described by the black development path in the accompanying image). This is in addition to explaining in detail why their developmental plan is easier to develop than alternative paths (described by the red paths). As our Science article makes clear, this is central to justifying the wisdom of embarking on the development of HEGAAs, and many other types of GM viruses. 

Over the next five years, only a minority of anticipated CRISPR-inspired innovations will involve intentional environmental releases (see recent NAS report). HEGAAs, and some other GM viruses, have the property of an early-stage biological weapons proliferation risk that is not shared with most other proposed techniques (including avant-garde ones like gene drive). 

Choosing not to clearly address these obvious issues of global concern, as detailed in the Science article, makes their current model of develop first and explain later an especially unwise path, particularly for this insect-delivered program, that in many ways appears to be designed to get carried away.

Are HEGAAS the first  genetically modified viruses proposed for use in the environment?  

No. In fact there have even been 4 field trials, starting in 1993 (see  FAQ page for more details)- Though none of these were HEGAAs, i.e. the viruses do not have any artificially conferred capacity for gene editing

Interest in genetically modified viruses, including HEGAAs, largely stems from their rapid speed of action, as infections can sweep quickly through target populations. This same property is also a serious safety concern, in that it makes it hard to predict where viruses geographically disperse to or what species they eventually infect.

Other authors prior to us have  highlighted the pressing need for a trans-national framework to make informed and transparent decisions about genetically modified viruses e.g.

1. Angulo, E.; Gilna, B. When biotech crosses borders– international governance of self-dispersive GMOs purposefully released for public health, controlling invasive species and pests, and treating wildlife. Nature Biotechnology 2008

2. Angulo, E.; Cooke, B. First synthesize new viruses then regulate their release? The case of the wild rabbit. Molecular Ecology 2002, 

3. Kuiken, T. DARPA’s Synthetic Biology Initiatives Could Militarize the Environment. Slate 2017.

Probably due to the complex regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications that need to be considered little progress has been made on how genetically modified viruses should be regulated when the intention is to disperse them in the environment.

 It is in this context that DARPA presented its Insect Allies work program in Nov 2016 

download DARPA work plan 

(reading pages 4-12 provides the very best description of its aims)

What makes the DARPA Insect Allies program unique compared to all earlier GM virus programs? 

Why do applied uses of viruses require functional trans-national control?   

If you take the example of the release of viruses to control rabbit populations (these were not genetically modified viruses), then the number of approved releases  of viruses is dwarfed by other kinds of  trans-national movements (some of which are inter-continental). If a transmissible virus is perceived to be effective and useful it is in many circumstances reasonable to assume that will be moved without approval.

Information taken from Angulo, E.; Cooke, B. First synthesize new viruses then regulate their release?

 The case of the wild rabbit. Molecular Ecology 2002, 11, 2703–2709

Are proposals for the use of GM viruses  in the environment likely to remain limited to agriculture?

Probably not. In the absence of  functional trans-national frameworks for discussing genetically modified  viruses, and HEGAAs specifically, it is conceivable  that other applications will also be proposed and funded. 

For example, below is  the frequency of publications explicitly considering the possibility of  developing vaccines which are transmissible between individuals (removing the necessity of  individual vaccination, along with any possibility of informed consent).

Subject classifications of the above 7 papers according to Web of Science.  The numbers of studies in the above graph are small, more studies do exist on this topic but they do not have the exact combination of “transmissible vaccine” in their title.

 Indeed the rabbit GM virus field trial in Spain (occurred 2000, see .pdf) is an example of this type of approach.

 awareness of HEGAAs and insect-based means of their delivery is currently very low among nonspecialist scientists and policy-makers, even though it is anticipated that key development milestones should be achieved within the next year.  Should this be accepted as the global norm for funding projects that enable such potentially hazardous directions of research, the best practices and  rules, which have contributed to keeping our world largely free from the use of devastating biological weapons for over 60 years, may be seriously undermined. 

To contact  authors  of the Science  article use the following  address or links on press release pages above 

butterknife dylan egon

Dr. Guy Reeves

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön

(media requests by e-mail only)

Artwork credit: butterknife, Dylan Egon

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