WaPo editorial response

'Develop first, explain later' strategy may prove unwise for this specific Pentagon program



It is clear that there will be a wave of imaginative gene-editing-inspired innovations proposed over the coming two-to-five years. Many will harness the power of biology to improve the lives of people around the globe. For the vast majority of these techniques, gene editing events will remain contained inside the walls of hospitals, laboratories, or production facilities.


An example would be medical treatments involving the removal of cells from a patient for gene-editing. After the procedure, when the therapeutically-enhanced cells are reintroduced into their body, the patient will walk out of the hospital with the gene-edited tissue, but will lack the capacity to edit genes themselves.


There exist a small minority of techniques that seek to produce gene editing events in the environment, outside of the direct human control and observation that is possible in laboratory settings. A significant portion of an ongoing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, program sought to introduce gene editing capabilities into plant viruses, so that they could edit plant chromosomes in already-planted fields (a capacity that does not exist in nature in any plant virus). In DARPA’s own words, “Plant viruses hold significant promise as carriers of gene editing circuitry, and are a natural partner for an insect-transmitted delivery platform.


This program, called Insect Allies, was discussed in a recent opinion piece by the Washington Post Editorial Board [2], using a format that might be recognizable to many as a case of ‘Skeptics vs. the Defenders of scientific progress’, a format not adopted in the preceding month’s Washington Post article about the same topic [3]. In choosing this polarizing format, the Editorial Board completely dismisses the substantiated scientific issues underlying the concerns that are considered in both the Science article [4] and the website [5] they referred to.


Additionally, the opinion piece fails to address or even mention a central unresolved issue: that Insect Allies may possess the very unusual property of an early-development-stage risk of biological weapons proliferation. This is a concern that is not likely shared with most other proposed environmental modification techniques, including avant-garde ones like gene drive.


For well-established biological reasons, the knowledge that would be required to develop the sufficiently-controllable agricultural system promoted  by DARPA  is likely to be preceded by the much smaller body of knowledge required for the development of a new class of targetable bioweapons. It is important to note that it would be the targetability of this new class of weapons that may prove most significant from  an arms control perspective.


If DARPA can provide specific technical answers as to how the agricultural promises made for Insect Allies can be achieved without a substantial risk of globally proliferating the information necessary to generate new and targetable forms of anti-crop bioweapon, then this is what they should be actively doing. However, this key question still remains unaddressed in any publically accessible forum, national or international. Indeed, subsequent to our October 5th publication [4]in the Journal Science, DARPA appears to be attempting to obscure the fact it was ever their goal to develop viruses to act as carriers of gene editing circuitry (as a means to modify plant chromosomes in fields). This is in spite of repeated clear statements to the contrary in most of their documents and press releases [6].


Unfortunately it appears to be the choice of DARPA not to clearly address obvious issues of global concern, instead preferring to steer the conversation towards generic debates about “progress”, largely divorced from any of the specifics of their program.


The Insect Allies program proposes to disperse genetically modified viruses, by way of genetically modified insects, to protect crops that were themselves potentially grown from genetically modified seeds [7].  The question of how one may perceive this possibility is an unavoidably value based personal judgment. However important it is that this question is broadly discussed, the highly specific and pressing questions relating to biological weapons proliferation can, and probably should, be evaluated quite independently. If the already established sequence of “attempt to develop first, publically explain later” becomes the global precedent for genetically modified viruses in the environment, this risks undermining 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.[4.]


[1] (page 4)  https://www.fbo.gov/utils/view?id=40638c9e7d45ed8310f9d4f4671b4a7b

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-pentagon-program-involving-insects-comes-with-risks--and-huge-potential/2018/11/04/ba3f9e8e-c8e4-11e8-9b1c-a90f1daae309_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.321be465f779

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/10/04/pentagon-is-studying-an-insect-army-defend-crops-critics-fear-bioweapon/?utm_term=.81e83d7f8fcd

[4] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6410/35.full?ijkey=rr3CdlvjcwD7s&keytype=ref&siteid=sci


[6] http://web.evolbio.mpg.de/HEGAAs/gene-editing-of-plant-chrom.html

[7](time point 17:17) http://www.capeandislands.org/post/insect-allies-program-draws-criticism



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