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

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

Fascinating article in the New York Times that isn't getting a ton of publicity, but its importance can't be overstated. The science feature's subhead offers the nut graf: Critics warn that a Defense Department-funded food security project that is still in the lab could set off a “biological arms race.”

The article begins:

Within the Defense Department, one agency’s recent project sounds futuristic: millions of insects carrying viruses descend upon crops and then genetically modify them to withstand droughts, floods and foreign attacks, ensuring a permanently secure food supply.

But in a warning published Thursday in the journal Science, a group of independent scientists and lawyers objected to the research, which has not yet moved out of the lab. They argue that the endeavor is not so different from designing biological weapons — banned under international law since 1975 — that could swarm and destroy acres of crops.

The dispute is the latest episode in an ongoing international debate over the pursuit of what is called dual-use research: technological discoveries that can be beneficial or pose threats to human welfare. As gene-editing tools become increasingly accessible, scientists, ethicists and policymakers are weighing the good pivotal discoveries could do for humanity against their nefarious potential.

“Once you engineer a virus that spreads by insect, it is hard to imagine how you would ever control it,” said Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany, who contributed to the critique.

“You haven’t just released a transmissible virus — you’ve released a disease,” he added. “The United States knows better than to return to a biological arms race.”

The agency funding the research is DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (A DARPA official plays a key role in Biohack.)

Let's keep a wary eye on this. Such a new technology can easily be misappropriated by malevolent forces in rogue governments in the decades ahead.

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