Agricultural food production is a fundamental human activity that contributes to defense preparedness, social stability, and economic vitality. However, food production can be jeopardized by natural and man-made threats such as viruses, pests, fungi, herbicides, drought, pollution, salinity, flooding, and frost. Traditional agricultural threat responses—crop rotation, selective breeding, pesticides, slash-and-burn clearing, and quarantine—offer some protection, but are not ideal for facing unexpected or rapidly emerging threats, and are not well suited for securing mature plants. The Insect Allies program seeks to provide an alternative to these traditional responses, using targeted gene therapy to protect mature plants within a single growing season.
To achieve this goal, Insect Allies proposes to leverage a natural and 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 “allies.” And, in addition to protecting crops, the foundational knowledge and generalizable tools developed under the program could also support future agricultural innovation.
The program’s three technical areas—viral manipulation, insect vector optimization, and selective gene therapy in mature plants—layer together to support the goal of rapidly transforming mature plants to protect against natural or intentional agricultural disruption without the need for extensive infrastructure. Insect Allies aims to effect the expression of desired traits within a single season. In contrast, one of the most effective existing methods for protecting plants—selective breeding of disease resistance—typically involves five to seven years of work to identify the relevant protective genes and another 10 years or more to propagate the desired traits throughout plant populations.
Insect Allies will emphasize biosafety and biosecurity. All work will be conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses, or other secured facilities.
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