Primary motivation for Insect Allies  2016-2017?

Below is the  text of  the 4 cited press release  documents (numbered as in the article).

2.         BTI receives DARPA “Insect Allies” Award. EurekAlert! (2017), (available at

3.         Penn State team receives $7M award to enlist insects as allies for food security (2017), (available at

4.         Ohio State scientists make plant virus system “turn on its head” with insect research (2017), (available at

6.         DARPA Enlists Insects to Protect Agricultural Food Supply & Commodity Crops. Res. Dev. (2016), (available at

DARPA Enlists Insects to Protect Agricultural Food Supply

New program aims for insect delivery of protective genes to modify mature plants within a single growing season





It may not be obvious to humans, but the life of a plant is full of peril. Viruses, pests, fungi, herbicides, drought, pollution, salinity, flooding, and frost—the plants that we depend on for food, clean air, and materials are challenged by myriad threats, natural and man-made. By extension, human populations are put at risk when food security is challenged and the agricultural underpinnings of our economies are destabilized, especially when threats emerge rapidly or unexpectedly.

Farmers and others responsible for plant health use longstanding tools such as crop rotation, selective breeding, pesticides, slash-and-burn clearing, and quarantine to shelter plants and defend against the worst effects of pathogens, pests, and environmental insults, but these methods can be slow, inefficient, and damaging to the environment, and may require extensive and expensive infrastructure. And while scientists and farmers are increasingly turning to molecular techniques to improve resilience in plant varieties, today’s genomic tools generally do not allow for alteration of mature plants.

A new DARPA program is poised to provide an alternative to traditional agricultural threat response, using targeted gene therapy to protect mature plants within a single growing season. DARPA proposes to leverage a natural and very efficient two-step delivery system to transfer modified genes to plants: insect vectors and the plant viruses they transmit. In the process, DARPA aims to transform certain insect pests into “Insect Allies,” the name of the new effort.

“Insects eat plants and insects transmit the majority of plant viruses,” said Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for Insect Allies. “DARPA plans to harness the power of this natural system by engineering genes inside plant viruses that can be transmitted by insects to confer protective traits to the target plants they feed upon.”

Insect Allies’ three technical areas—trait design, insect vector optimization, and selective gene therapy in mature plants—layer together to support the goal of rapidly transforming mature plants to protect against natural or intentional agricultural disruption without the need for extensive infrastructure. The foundational knowledge and generalizable tools developed under the program could also support future agricultural innovation.

One of the most effective existing methods for protecting plants—selective breeding of disease resistance—typically involves five to seven years of work to identify the relevant protective genes and another 10 years or more to propagate the desired traits throughout plant populations. Insect Allies aims to effect the expression of desired traits within a single season. Performers will be challenged to develop compatible systems of naturally occurring plant viruses, herbivorous insects, and target crops, then genetically tune these systems to maximize transmission and uptake of traits across the entire target plant population with zero transmission to non-target plants.

“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.”

Insect Allies will emphasize biosafety and biosecurity. All work will be conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses, or other secured facilities.


. Ohio State scientists to make plant virus system “turn on its head” with insect research

By Kaylee Harter: December 20, 2017

As part of the research done by Ohio State scientists, maize will become resistant to biotic and abiotic stressors, viral and fungal diseases, insect damage and drought.

 Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Ohio State scientists have teamed up with researchers across the country for a project that will use insects, often an enemy of crops, to make crops resistant to environmental stresses.

The research, referred to as Insect Allies- Team Maize Hopper, is co-led by Peg Redinbaugh, an adjunct professor of plant pathology at Ohio State’s CFAES research and development center, and Guo-Liang Wang, an Ohio State geneticist and professor of plant pathology.

Typically, viruses that cause disease in plants are moved from plant to plant by insects, said Redinbaugh, who also is a research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

“For this project, the idea was, ‘Can we take that system and kind of turn it on its head?” she said. “We can make the [insect] do something good instead of doing something bad.”

Redinbaugh said insects such as aphids and leafhoppers will be infected with a virus that spreads to maize plants when the insect feeds, making the maize resistant to biotic and abiotic stressors, viral and fungal diseases, insect damage and drought.  

The insects must die afterwards to ensure they do not spread the viruses elsewhere.

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

“In humans, you have mutations you carry from your ancestors,” he said. “[CRISPR] can modify that DNA sequence, correct that one gene, then you will become healthy.  So if these plants have a gene susceptible to a disease, this CRISPR enzyme can modify that gene, making the plant become resistant.”

While plant breeders are able to breed crops that are resistant to certain stressors, this technology would not be a replacement for breeding.  It could, however, be used for emergency events, Redinbaugh said.  

“Breeding takes a long time,” she said.  “Getting a new maize hybrid that’s resistant –– that’s years. So that’s not going to work if there’s a sudden change that I want to protect the maize against.”

For example, Ohio farmers often decide against growing corn that is resistant to drought.

“In the Midwest, we don’t have an irrigation system … so we are reliant on the weather,” Wang said.  

If farmers have already planted their crops and a severe drought is in the forecast, this system could save their crops, he added.

While Redinbaugh said the technology will be useful in the U.S., she believes it will be especially useful in developing countries where farmers are especially dependent on their crops.

“They sell some of their crop and part of that money, the cash that they get from that, sends their kids to school,” Redinbaugh said. “So if they lose a crop… they lose food for their family, so that’s food security, they lose their ability to sell their crop, and that affects the education for the next generation”


Guo-Liang Wang, an Ohio State geneticist and professor of plant pathology, is helping lead the research to make crops resistant to environmental stresses. Credit: Kaylee Harter | Lantern reporter

Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an entity within the Department of Defense, the project could be worth up to $10 million if all the phases are completed. While DARPA might be thought of as an agency that funds military and technology projects, DARPA often funds biological projects like the one Wang and Redinbaugh are working on.

In trying to explain why DARPA values funding these sorts of projects, Wang summarized its thoughts by saying, “They have the money and they say, ‘OK, we’ll fund some project in agriculture which could be used in disaster and emergency situations and prepare that technology.” 

The project is currently in the first of three phases, all of which will be carried out over a period of four years.  

With many variables involved in the project come many challenges, Wang said.  These challenges include finding a virus that will infect the maize plant without causing symptoms and finding the best insect-virus combination to make changes in the complicated maize genome.

Despite these challenges, Wang said they are optimistic.

He credited this optimism to the diverse skills of the 11 scientists working on this project from various fields such as entomology, virology and molecular biology.

Aside from the agricultural benefits, Wang and Redinbaugh both said they expect more general benefits in the scientific world.

“I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to have this opportunity,” Redinbaugh said.  “In addition to the end-results that we’ve been talking about, all of us feel like the work that we’re doing along the way could really help change how science gets done in each of our individual disciplines.”

Editor’s note (1/16): This article has been updated to accurately reflect the value of the Insect Allies- Team Maize Hopper project. It also has been updated to accurately reflect the frequency with which DARPA funds biological research. 


Penn State team receives $7M award to enlist insects as allies for food security

November 20, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State-led research team is hoping to enlist insects as allies in an effort to make crops more tolerant of environmental stressors, after the crops are already growing in the greenhouse or field.

Led by project director Wayne Curtis, professor of chemical engineering in Penn State's College of Engineering, the researchers are supported by a four-year cooperative agreement worth up to $7 million through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its Insect Allies program. The program is aimed at using gene therapy techniques to — within a single growing season — make mature plants more resilient in the face of natural and man-made threats such as viruses, pests, fungi, herbicides, drought, pollution, salinity, flooding and frost.

“Currently there is not much a farmer can do to save a crop if weather forecasting predicts a severe drought for the next month," Curtis said. "Even if it’s possible to develop a plant variety that can overcome one type of stress, the nature of new diseases and pests threatens to outpace improvements provided by traditional breeding and genetic modifications. We seek to develop a technology for rapid response that will allow delivery of genes to protect plants as needed after they are planted in the field.”

The team’s approach focuses on reducing the risk of off-target effects by blocking the virus from replicating. To accomplish this, researchers working in a greenhouse environment will use whiteflies to deliver deconstructed viruses encoding beneficial genes into mature tomato plants, with a timing and specificity that improves the plants’ natural stress response to drought and disease.

The team hopes to optimize the effectiveness of this approach using computer modeling of the behavior of whiteflies to coordinate trait delivery with the extent and duration of the plant stressors. The information derived from this model could also play a role in improving stress response in other agricultural systems.

The project encompasses three groups working on different aspects of the research: the "Plant" group, led by Curtis; the "Insect" group, led by Jason Rasgon, professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State; and the "Virus" group, led by Jane Polston, professor of plant pathology, University of Florida.

Rasgon’s novel work using CRISPR/cas9 technology in mosquitoes dovetails with the project’s innovative approach to gene delivery via insects.

Polston’s expertise, spanning from whitefly-rearing to virus-indexing to greenhouse management strategies, is relevant for conducting research under biocontainment and quarantine as the technology is developed.

And, although his background is in chemical engineering, project director Curtis’ research has always had a strong emphasis on applied biology, especially plants and agriculture. “My Ph.D., almost 30 years ago, was actually on scaling up production of plant medicinal compounds,” he said.

This DARPA award adds another food-security project to Curtis’ portfolio, which also includes projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve production of yam, a crop that feeds millions throughout western Africa and tropical nations.

“Food security is the foundation of societal stability that is often taken for granted," Curtis said. "DARPA’s investment in this technology development recognizes this importance.”


BTI receives DARPA 'Insect Allies' Award

Developing viruses and insects for maize improvement






Researchers at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Davis, and Iowa State University have received a four-year $10.3 million award to engineer insect-vectored viruses to express genes in maize that can help in combatting disease, drought, and other yield-reducing stresses.

The research project, titled Viruses and Insects as Plant Enhancement Resources (VIPER), is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Insect Allies program. "The vision of Blake Bextine, a program manager at DARPA, was to develop insect-vectored viruses that can be used to modify crop plants to respond to emerging threats in real time," according to Georg Jander, VIPER Project Leader and BTI professor. "We responded to this challenge by proposing to engineer maize viruses, aphids, and leafhoppers such that they can be deployed rapidly to change gene expression in mature maize plants."

The productivity of maize, the most economically important crop in the United States, can be negatively impacted by insect pests, drought, and other environmental stresses. About 30% of maize productivity world-wide is lost to pests and pathogens, and drought can lead to complete crop failure.

Although classical breeding is commonly used to improve maize, the process is slow and breeders often are unable to respond quickly enough to new threats. Other responses to biotic and abiotic threats, including the use of chemical pesticides and irrigation, can be expensive, inefficient, or cause unwanted environmental damage.

Together, the VIPER team will engineer viruses that activate desirable traits in mature maize plants, insects that efficiently transmit these viruses, and mechanisms to prevent the unwanted spread of the viruses and insects to non-target plants. The project brings together seven scientists with diverse areas of expertise: Bryce Falk (UC Davis), W. Allen Miller (Iowa State University), and Steve Whitham (Iowa State University) investigate different types of plant viruses; S.P. Dinesh-Kumar (UC Davis) and Dan Voytas (University of Minnesota) are leaders in the field of site-directed mutagenesis and plant genome engineering; and Clare Casteel (UC Davis) and Jander are experts in studying plant-insect interactions.

Although the ultimate goal is to develop viruses that can be used to transiently modify mature maize plants in agricultural fields, it is important to note that VIPER is focused on solving fundamental scientific questions of feasibility and all of the current work will be done in greenhouses and growth chambers. No genetically engineered viruses, insects, or plants will be released into the environment as part of this study.

"The biggest impact of the VIPER project will be the development of a toolkit to rapidly counter sporadic and emerging threats to this valuable crop," said Jander. The methods developed by the VIPER team also will be useful for basic and applied maize research, and eventually may be deployed in a similar manner for other important crop plants.



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