The Insect Allies program is pursuing scalable, readily deployable, and generalizable countermeasures against potential natural and engineered threats to the food supply with the goals of preserving the U.S. crop system. National security can be quickly jeopardized by naturally occurring threats to the crop system, including pathogens, drought, flooding, and frost, but especially by threats introduced by state or non-state actors. Insect Allies seeks to mitigate the impact of these incursions by applying targeted therapies to mature plants with effects that are expressed at relevant timescales—namely, within a single growing season. Such an unprecedented capability would provide an urgently needed alternative to pesticides, selective breeding, slash-and-burn clearing, and quarantine, which are often ineffective against rapidly emerging threats and are not suited to securing mature plants.
To develop such countermeasures, Insect Allies performer teams are leveraging a natural and efficient two-step delivery system to transfer modified genes to plants: insect vectors and the plant viruses they transmit. 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 modifying plant traits without the need for extensive infrastructure. Since the start of the program, Insect Allies teams with expertise in molecular and synthetic biology have demonstrated mounting technical breakthroughs that are providing foundational knowledge in plant virus gene editing and disease vector biology from which the program will continue to build.
DARPA emphasizes biosafety and biosecurity in this research. All work is conducted inside closed laboratories, greenhouses, or other secured facilities; DARPA is not funding open release.
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