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A step towards biological warfare with insects?
A research program by the Department of Defense research agency could easily be misused to develop biological weapons. Researchers draw attention to the explosiveness.
Genome Editing (Crispr) Law
While the terrifying effects of chemical weapons due to today's armed conflicts are present in the public eye, biological weapons and their effects have largely disappeared from the public eye. A research program by the Department of Defense's research agency is now raising concerns that biological warfare research could be misused. In the project called Insect Allies ("Allied / Allied Insects"), insects are intended to serve as a means of transport for plant viruses and to transmit them to agricultural crops.
The viruses can change the genome of the affected plants by means of so-called genome editing. In this way, plants such as corn or tomatoes that are already growing in the fields can be genetically modified quickly and on a large scale. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön and the universities of Freiburg and Montpellier point out in the scientific journal Science that such a system can be manipulated relatively easily and used as a biological weapon.
Genome editing opens up unprecedented opportunities to change the genetic makeup of crops. Plants can become more productive or less sensitive to pests and drought, for example. Until now, such interventions in the genome have only been possible in the laboratory - if the plants grow in the field, it is too late. In the event of unexpected drought or pest infestation, farmers will have to wait for new seeds for the next harvest season.
At the end of 2016, the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) - a department of the U.S. Department of Defense that funds research projects for the ministry - launched a four-year research program. It funds projects totaling $ 27 million with the goal of releasing genetically modified viruses that can change the genetic makeup of crops outdoors. In mid-2017, the first of three consortia from several American research institutions announced their participation in the DARPA program. As is apparent from press releases from the institutions selected for the program, the scientists involved are researching whether they can transfer the viruses to maize and tomatoes using grasshoppers, aphids and whiteflies, which are plant lice. By the end of the program, the technology should be usable on a large scale in greenhouses.
Lack of public debate
In public statements, DARPA points out that the findings from the Insect Allies program should be used primarily in agriculture, for example to protect crops from drought, frost, flooding, pesticides or diseases. However, the approval procedures for genetically modified organisms in many countries for the use of such a technology would have to be changed comprehensively. Farmers, seed producers and, last but not least, the public would also be massively affected by the use of such processes. "Despite isolated press releases from DARPA and the consortia involved in the program, there has been almost no public discussion about the meaning and possible consequences of this technology. The program is largely unknown even among experts, ”says Guy Reeves from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön.
However, according to the scientists from Plön, Freiburg and Montpellier, a broad social, scientific and legal debate would be urgently needed. In your opinion, there are no plausible reasons to use insects to spread genetic material. The researchers are particularly critical of the use of insects to spread genetic material, since the insights from the Insect Allies program can be modified relatively easily and thus adapted for biological warfare. “For example, genes could be rendered inoperable - which is usually easier than optimizing them. The process does not even have to be developed further, it is sufficient to simplify it so that it can be used as a weapon, ”says Reeves. Given these objections, the DARPA program may raise suspicions that it is not pursuing peaceful purposes as required by the B-arms convention. This in turn could lead to other countries developing their own weapons in this area.
Biological Weapons Convention
For an international legal assessment, it is crucial whether a biological research program serves only peaceful purposes. The Convention on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons prohibits the more than 180 contracting states from developing, producing or acquiring agents and toxins of species and in quantities "that are not justified by preventive, protective or other peaceful purposes". The Convention also prohibits the development or manufacture of "weapons, equipment or resources designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in an armed conflict". The authors argue that the insects used to transmit the viruses are prohibited resources within the meaning of the convention.
“Because of this far-reaching prohibition, worrying biological research generally requires plausible justification through peaceful purposes. The Insect Allies program could violate the Biological Weapons Convention if the objectives set by DARPA are not plausible. This is particularly true given the fact that this is a technology that can easily be used for biological warfare, ”explains Silja Vöneky, legal scientist at the University of Freiburg. (sb, hr)