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DARPA Enlists Insects in R&D Effort to Protect the Food Supply

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Farmers spend a lot of time and money trying to keep insects from damaging their crops. But the U.S. military sees some of these bugs as potential friends, not foes. A government-funded research project is studying how to use insects to deliver a targeted therapy to a crop following an outbreak of disease, a disaster, or even a terrorist strike.

The initiative comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the military. According to Blake Bextine, program manager in the agency’s biological technologies office, protecting the food supply is a matter of national concern and insects can help. Bextine describes the effort as “leveraging biology for national security.”

Bextine made his comments in a presentation Tuesday at the Crop, Animal and Food Tech Showcase in Durham, NC. The annual event, hosted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, draws entrepreneurs and companies from across the country and around the world. Bextine delivered his keynote talk by phone because his duties prevented him from traveling.

The DARPA insect research program is called Insect Allies. Bextine said that right now, when disease or disaster strikes a crop, the farmer loses the crop and can’t try again to produce food until the next growing season. That’s a major setback, particularly for some crops that take several seasons to develop harvestable fruit. An insect-delivered therapy could shorten the recovery timeframe, Bextine said. By quickly delivering a remedy to plants, DARPA hopes to have the therapeutic benefits take effect within the same growing season.

So why is this research effort happening now? Bextine noted that science has made great strides in the understanding of genetics and the development of new genetic technologies. Insects themselves can’t cure a crop, but they can spread viruses that can invade plants and inject a useful genetic trait into their cells. Viruses have become useful tools for introducing genetic material into cells for applications in both plant and human health. While that’s relatively easy to do to a single patient in a clinical setting or an individual plant in a lab, treating an entire field of plants poses logistical problems. That’s where the insects come in.

Last year, DARPA awarded $10.3 million in grant funding to support a four-year research effort to develop the insect delivery technology. The institutions conducting the research are the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, NY, the University of Minnesota, the University of California Davis, and Iowa State University. Last fall, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University joined the Insect Allies program with a grant award of up to $5 million.

The insect research is focusing on aphids and leafhoppers. The target crop is corn. Working with insects comes with challenges. Insects tend to clump together, so researchers will need to find a way to make sure that they disperse throughout a field, Bextine said. They’ll also need to develop a way to turn the insect off. This goal could be accomplished by engineering insects that will respond to some sort of environmental signal, such as light or temperature. For example, insects could be engineered in a way that ties their lifespan to light. After being reared in light for the entirety of their short life spans, these insects would simply die after the sun goes down, Bextine said.

“We want to put safeguards in place to ensure that the technology moves where we want it to,” Bextine said.

Insect Allies isn’t the only DARPA-funded research effort related to agriculture. Last year, the agency awarded a $1.5 million grant to Descartes Labs, a Santa Fe, NM-based startup whose satellite imagery software is used to make crop performance predictions. The agency explained its interest in the company by pointing to hunger as one of the sources of civil unrest. Tools that can predict famine could help avoid these problems by suggesting when and where to make an early humanitarian intervention that could avoid a later military one, DARPA said. Descartes’ grant lasts two years with an option for a third year.

Other plant-related DARPA projects include research into ways to develop plants that could alert people of danger. For example, a plant could change in appearance in the presence of a chemical or biological threat, providing a visual cue warning people to stay away, Bextine said. DARPA is also interested in insects as a possible a food source, an application that some startups, such as Seattle-based Beta Hatch, are already pursuing. Noting the genetic engineering advances that led to the development of “golden rice,” a variety of rice engineered with a form of vitamin A to address vitamin deficiency, Bextine asked, “Could we have golden maggots?”

Circling back to the insect research, Bextine said DARPA does work with private companies, but the Insect Allies program is still too early to have any industry partners. He took care to note that the insect research will be conducted entirely within closed facilities to ensure that there is no environmental exposure. The first phase will focus on identifying a virus with the proper characteristics. After identifying a virus and modifying it for use in delivering a genetic trait to corn plants, researchers will then work on the payload strategy with the insects.

“We’re moving along pretty well,” Bextine said.

Photo of aphids by Flickr user Mick Talbot via a Creative Commons license