In Washington, D.C., a research program that could allow crops to respond more readily to factors like changing climate proposes introducing genetic changes into already-planted fields, using infectious viruses delivered by insects.
Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next. In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields.
The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents using insect-based dispersion into ecosystems are profound. The program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery.