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Research or Weapon, Scientists Ask

Some scientists say a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project to use bugs to modify plant genes could be viewed as a bioweapon, the Associated Press reports.

DARPA, which is part of the US Department of Defense, launched the Insect Allies project two years ago and tells the AP that the goal of the work is to protect the national food supply from, for instance, drought, disease, and bioterrorism. It adds that the goal would be to use insects to infect the plants with genetically modified viruses that, in turn, edit the plants to protect against those conditions.

But in a commentary in Science this week, researchers from France and Germany argue that the agency needs to better explain and justify the peaceful nature of the work. They say that spraying — like what's used to distribute pesticides — could deliver the gene editing tools rather than insects.

"Once you engineer a virus that spreads by insect, it is hard to imagine how you would ever control it," co-author Guy Reeves, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, tells the New York Times. "You haven't just released a transmissible virus — you've released a disease. The United States knows better than to return to a biological arms race." Biological weapons, the Times notes, have been banned by international law since 1975.

Blake Bextine, the DARPA program manager for Insect Allies, tells the Guardian it "is producing neither biological weapons nor the means for their delivery."