Grasshoppers, flies and other bugs could be turned into biological weapons by terrorists ‘relatively easily’, scientists have warned.
Virus-carrying insects are already being used in a crop boosting program that plans to improve yields of maize and tomatoes by changing their DNA.
It would be simple for rogue states or terrorists to use the same technology – in warfare, according to new research.
The US Department of Defense project, called ‘Insect Allies’, uses a genome editing technique to protect plants against drought, frost, flooding, pesticides and diseases.
But Dr Guy Reeves, an expert in GM insects at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plon, Germany, said: “There is hardly any public debate about the far-reaching consequences of proposing the development of this technology.
“The Insect Allies programme is largely unknown, even in expert circles.”
His international team whose study is published in Science say such a system can be manipulated and used as a biological weapon “relatively easily.”
The program aims to develop virus-transmitting insects that infest crops with the help of a technique called Crispr-Cas that acts like a pair of ‘molecular scissors.’
It can actually snip DNA with viruses and modify an organism’s genome.
Dr Reeves and collleagues found it would be more straightforward for use as a biological weapon than for the proposed agricultural purpose.
He explained: “It is very much easier to kill or sterilise a plant using gene editing than it is to make it herbicide or insect-resistant.”
For instance, it could be used to switch off genes – which is usually easier than optimising them. That means a simplified version of the program could be used to make the plants die.
At the end of 2016, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which is responsible for developing military technologies in the US put out a call for tenders for a four year research work plan.
This program has distributed a total of 27 million US dollars, aiming to develop viruses that can genetically edit crops in fields.
The first of three consortia, drawn from 14 American research facilities, announced their participation in mid-2017.
Maize and tomato plants are reportedly being used in current experiments, while dispersal insect species mentioned include leafhoppers, whiteflies, and aphids.
The DARPA plan will culminate in large-scale greenhouse demonstrations of the fully functional system including insect-dispersed viruses.
But most countries would require comprehensive changes to approval processes for genetically modified organisms.
Farmers, seed producers and not least the general public would also be massively affected by a use of such methods.
Dr Reeves and colleagues say a broad social, scientific and legal debate of the issue is urgently required.
They add that no compelling reasons have been presented by DARPA for the use of insects as an uncontrolled means of dispersing synthetic viruses into the environment.
They said the programme may even be in breach of the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention.
In international law, the decisive factor is whether a biological research programme exclusively serves peaceful purposes.
The Biological Weapons Convention, to which more than 180 States are parties, obliges them to never develop or produce agents or toxins of types or in quantities “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes”.
In addition, the Convention prohibits to develop or produce “weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”
Co author Silja Vöneky, a law professor from Freiburg University, said: “Because of the broad ban of the Biological Weapons Convention, any biological research of concern must be plausibly justified as serving peaceful purposes.
“The Insect Allies Program could be seen to violate the Biological Weapons Convention, if the motivations presented by DARPA are not plausible.
“This is particularly true considering that this kind of technology could easily be used for biological warfare.”
The researchers say the Insect Allies program may also encourage other states to increase their own research activities in this field – regardless of whether it proves to be technically successful or not.
Past efforts for banning the development of biological weapons have shown how important it is this ban be applied by states such as the US, who are considered an example by other countries.
Based on this, the researchers say the US should make proactive efforts to avoid any suspicion of engaging technologies that have the alarming potential for use in biological warfare.