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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 (not necessarily written by us)

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

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

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

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

Des insectes pour disséminer des virus : une arme incontrôlable ?

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 'Science' alerta de que EEUU podría estar probando armas biológicas usando insectos infectados con virus

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

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

Links in blue are to external websites

Links in  bold are to specific fragments in the Science article text or pages in this website.


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 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

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? 

  • It is the very first program to propose or fund the development of HEGAA viruses. These have the capacity to perform genetic engineering in the environment (this might also include seeds if the target species is a plant)
  •  The insect based means of delivery mandated in the work plan for the genetically modified viruses is obviously unpredictable 
  • The motivations provided for earlier programs were clear and plausible
  • The DARPA program is easily weaponized (this is nothing to do with the fact that DARPA is a military agency)

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 virus is perceived to be effective and useful and it is transmissible it appears 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 HEGAAs 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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