US ‘Insect Allies’ program engineers bugs to fight plant disease: Are they high-tech helpers or horrific threats?

Screen Shot at PM
Pentagon DARPA program targeting crop losses could turn insects into ‘easily weaponized’ biological army, critics claim. Image via National Geographic

Scientists dream of one day being able to construct viruses or bacteria from a collection of building blocks. Like a molecular delivery service, the viruses would deliver their genetic material to the cells of plants, animals or even people, where they would then fulfill their mission: boosting the production of certain proteins or directly manipulating the cell’s genetic makeup.

The technology’s potential promise for agriculture is enormous. Plant viruses that pose no danger to humans could protect olive orchards and orange plantations from disease or shield staples like corn and rice from the effects of drought or strong rains.

In Florida, Southern Gardens Citrus began working on the super-viruses together with other scientists …. And some scientists in the U.S. have even taken a step further: They are breeding aphids and leafhoppers that will have the ability to transmit the viruses to plants. The program, which receives financing from the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is called Insect Allies.

Related article:  1/3 of the world’s soil is degraded. But technology can bring our farmland 'back to life'

Some scientists have …. issued a warning aimed specifically at the DARPA program that the technology could fall into the wrong hands and be transformed into a dangerous biological weapon. Indeed, the line between high-tech helper and horrific threat appears to be a fine one.

Read full, original article: The Advance of Designer Viruses in Agriculture

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