A response to “Statement from Dr. Blake Bextine
DARPA Program Manager for Insect Allies”

Associated Publication:

“Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?”

Science Vol. 362, Issue 6410, pp. 35-37

DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7664

Published October 5, 2018

Companion Website: http://web.evolbio.mpg.de/HEGAAs 

For distribution: October 27th, 2018

We are pleased to see that DARPA is willing to constructively engage with us, as authors of the recent Policy platform entitled “Agricultural research, or a new bioweapon system?” in Science. However, there is almost no intersection between the topics of the Science article and their response published on the DARPA Insect Allies web page  on Oct 5, 2018 [1].

The two page response is largely taken up attempting to refute that there was limited public debate of the Insect Allies program since its inception in November 2016. This is largely done by asserting that an expert debate did occur, however even by their own admission it was largely out of public view [2]. Even DARPA advisors mentioned acknowledge that  “Concerns that a new technology could be weaponized are to be expected, even if that’s not the intention”[3]. The highly restricted nature of the debate over this program over the last two years  sits in stark contrast to DARPAs ‘Safe Genes’ program, established about the same time, elements of which continue to receive widespread expert and public attention.

The Science article use the word “public” eight times in reference to types of assessments of the ethical, trade, biosafety, or international biosecurity implications that would normally accompany such a globally important program of work. We explicitly acknowledged in our text that private assessments were likely to have been generated. However, we like most others  fail to see how private deliberations, however expert, could possibly substitute for an informed public debate, this true of both DARPA or any other organization  that might engage in developing similar globally concerning technology.

We would observe that there was no mention in the statement of farmers or farming organizations supporting the need or desirability of developing this kind of viral technology. Furthermore despite routine agriculture having been utilized as by far the primary motivation in all press releases prior to the Science article there is now a clear pivot towards what was previously a minor justification; that of emergency / intentional attack by an adversary. This is an important change in motivation. And an intentional attack by an adversary means, if the adversary is a foreign state, that an international armed conflict takes place which makes the use of the technique in a warlike scenario even more probable.


We would also note that there was no mention of factual inaccuracies in the Science article.


The kind of informed statements that may act to reduce the probability that other countries might develop their own capabilities in this arena were sadly entirely absent from the response.  Despite this omission, in comments to the media Blake Bextine did appear to make some constructive statements on a question of obvious concern. Namely the intentional or accidental genetic editing of crop seeds by released genetically modified viruses. Blake Bextine was quoted saying their “program is not targeting the germline cells of plants” [4]. This is the kind of positive statement we might have expected more of in the DARPA response. However, even here the clarity of this statement is obscured by other program participants and other of Blake Bextine’s own quotes questioning any role of gene editing in the program [5]. This is despite earlier clear statements to the contrary [6].Even, which, if any, of the 3 viral consortia’s plans does not involve editing plant chromosomes remains unclarified by DARPA.   Note that the acronym HEGAA partly derives from the term “genetic alteration agent” used in the DARPA work plan.

Without a clear commitment by DARPA to provide the information that could foster a substantive, informed and public debate, in the first instance focused on its program, there is a risk that any future similarly globally significant program will assume the same position that technological development should precede informed public debate. Is the model of develop first and then discuss requirements later really such a good strategy for a genetically modified  virus technology that is designed to get carried away?


[1 ]

See link on Insect Allies web page or direct link

[2 ]

Public subject matter of talks mentioned in DARPA response ?

Insect Allies Proposers Day on November 18, 2016

Evidence of public debates

We attempted to locate any public information on the  content of the 4  presentations mentioned,  by internet searchers and kind and thoughtful responses to inquiries we can provide the following links.

Dr. Jacqueline Fletcher (see last 10 slides)

Dr. Richard Murray (probably similar to the slides in this NAS report)

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (did not recall using slides)

Dr. Jacqueline Fletcher of the National Institute for Microbial Forensics & Food and Agricultural Biosecurity at Oklahoma State University

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Insect Allies kickoff meeting on August 14, 2017

Dr. Richard Murray Professor of Control & Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology

Trilateral Technical Working Group (TTWG) on May 31, 2018

Georg Jander, Boyce Thompson Institute


Scientists: US military program could be seen as bioweapon

AP, Candice Choi & Seth Borenstein 4th October


„He also said that the program is not targeting the germline cells of plants and thus would not lead to heritable traits.“

Washington post, Joel Achenbach, 4th October

[5 ]


„Some of the researchers are considering using gene-editing tools like CRISPR to change plant chromosomes, but Curtis thinks that is unlikely to work.“

Science, Kai Kupferschmidt, , 4th October


“All of our teams are actually working with transient expression systems,” meaning that the introduced genetic material does not alter chromosomes or the germ line, and thus would not affect future plant generations.

The Scientist, Abby Olena, 4th October


„…. That research doesn't involve using technology that edits plants“


E&E news , Courtney Columbus, 4th October

[6 ]

„The project relies on a fairly new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 that can modify a DNA sequence in plants, animals and humans, “

Ohio State scientists make plant virus system “turn onits head” with insect research (2017);



„CRISPR Makes [this] Research Possible“

InsectAllies:HowtheEnemiesofCornMaySomedaySave It (2017);

 https://cals.ncsu.edu/news/insect-allies-how- the-enemies-of-corn-may-someday-save-it/


„“Genetic modification of plants has historically been done only to plant embryos inside of laboratories using tissue cultures,” Bextine said. “Transforming mature plants en masse would be an enormous achievement and pave the way for future breakthroughs in agriculture.”“

 DARPA Enlists Insects to Protect Agricultural Food Supply & Commodity Crops. R&D Mag. (2016);

www.rdmag.com/ news/2016/10/darpa-enlists-insects-protect-agricul- tural-food-supply-commodity-crops.



Dr. Guy Reeves

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Plön, Germany, Reeves@evolbio.mpg.de


No analytics are collected and no cookies are used on this site.