Genetically Modified Plant-Feeding Insects: A DARPA Project

darpaWhen transgenic mosquito technology was being developed an idea was floated to use genetically modified mosquitoes as flying syringes to deliver important antigens to immunize people against various pathogens.  Informed consent among other things made this an overly complex problem although the insect engineering aspects were feasible.  A similar idea is being explored now but with plant-feeding insects by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense in a program called Insect Allies.  They are seeking applications from teams with creative ideas that can satisfy their initial goals with proposal abstracts due in early December and full proposals about a month later.

DARPA Insect Allies Proposers DayDARPA describes their objectives this way:

A new DARPA program is poised to provide an alternative to traditional agricultural threat response, using targeted gene therapy to protect mature plants within a single growing season. DARPA proposes to leverage a natural and very efficient two-step delivery system to transfer modified genes to plants: insect vectors and the plant viruses they transmit. In the process, DARPA aims to transform certain insect pests into “Insect Allies,” the name of the new effort.”

PA Enlists Insects to Protect Agricultural Food Supply and Commodity Crops

Graphic Abstract of Insect Allies Project. Image Credit – DARPA

As is always the case with DARPA the goals are ambitious and challenging:

Performers will be challenged to develop compatible systems of naturally occurring plant viruses, herbivorous insects, and target crops, then genetically tune these systems to maximize transmission and uptake of traits across the entire target plant population with zero transmission to non-target plants.

The program announcement describes three technical areas that must be addressed in every proposal. Technical Area 1 concerns viruses, Technical Area 2 concerns insect vectors and Technical Area 3 concerns plants.

Representative homopterans. Line scales indicate approximate sizes of insects.

Homoptera: Image Credit- Encyclopedia Britannica

The project will progress in three Phases.  For example, Technical Area 2 – concerning insect vectors – will first require an insect system be identified (Phase 1), the insects will need to be modified to improve transmission qualities and have a single conditional lethal safeguard (Phase 2), and finally, they will need to be modified to improve their dispersal, host specificity and contain multi-factor conditional lethal safeguards (Phase 3).

All of this will need to be accomplished in 4 years.

Diversity among the heteropterans: (from left to right) lace bug, coreid bug, bat bug, stinkbug, termite bug, back swimmer, bedbug, water scorpion, water strider, toad bug, plant bug.

Heteropterans: Image Credit- Encyclopedia Britannica

DARPA recently hosted a Proposers Day in which the program was described and discussed and interested teams had an opportunity to interact.  Having attended Proposers Day I can say that there were lots of ideas concerning Technical Areas 1 and 3 (viruses and plants) and far fewer concerning Technical Area 2 (insects).   This is not surprising since insect vectors of plant viruses, as a group, have not received the attention of geneticists, molecular geneticists and developers of insect genetic technologies that some Diptera, Coleoptera and Lepidoptera have received.

While existing insect genetic technologies are certain to function in Hemiptera, satisfying DARPA’s performance metrics within their time frame will be a heavy lift.

DARPA Enlists Insects to Protect Agricultural Food Supply: New program aims for insect delivery of protective genes to modify mature plants within a single growing season



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