Insect allies

I was in secondary school at the height of the GM crops debate.

Like all new technologies, GM crops scared people. Although, GM scared them more than most.

People have similar fears today about artificial intelligence (AI) and nanobots. Or perhaps worst of all, artificially-intelligent nanobots.

All these fears are based on the same, ancient parable. It is the fear of opening Pandora’s box.

If you’re not familiar with Pandora’s box, here’s a rundown, courtesy of my good friend, Wikipedia:

According to Hesiod, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the gods, took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a jar left in his care containing sickness, death and many other unspecified evils which were then released into the world. Though she hastened to close the container, only one thing was left behind – usually translated as Hope.

It is essentially a fear of loss of control. You unleash something and it negatively impacts the world in ways you could not possibly have foreseen.

With GM crops, the fear was these GM crops would infect all other plant and animal species and alter DNA around the world.

The food chain would be broken and entire ecosystems would collapse, leading to death and destruction.

New and unimaginably strong diseases would mutate out of these GM crops and ravage all life on the planet.

Oh, and cancer. GM crops would definitely cause cancer. Because, mutations.

If you’re wondering about the Pandora’s box fears related to nanobots and AI, here they are:

Nanobots will continue to replicate at an exponential rate until they have transformed all matter in the universe – including humans. Given the nature of exponential growth, this would happen in a matter of days, or even hours.

AI will become more intelligent than humans. And when it does, it will be able to make itself millions upon millions of times more intelligent than us within seconds. Humanity’s future would then be entirely in the hands of this super-intelligence. If it wanted to it could wipe us out in an instant. This is known as the singularity.

The thing these all have in common is they sound completely plausible to the average person.

The scientific knowledge needed to gauge whether they are actual threats of not is beyond the grasp of almost every human on the planet.

There are probably only a handful of people in the world who could weigh up how likely these scenarios really are. And none of those people hold positions of political power.

So instead, we rely on third-hand knowledge and sensationalist journalism to make our assessments.

If something is made to sound terrifying, it creates an emotional response in us and we immediately fear it and want it stopped. It doesn’t matter if, as in GM crops’ case, it could end world hunger.

Pandora’s box is a centuries-old tale, but the phrase is still used all the time because it taps into an ancient fear we all have inside.

I was reminded of this when I read the following headline on Friday morning:

The US military is hacking insects with virus DNA, raising fears of dangerous new bio-weapons

It ticks a lot of boxes on the fear list.

Military operation – check.

Insects – check.

Virus DNA – check.

Dangerous new bio-weapons – check.

So, what is going on, and is it as terrifying as it sounds?

Here’s how US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (Darpa) describes the programme:

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.

So, yeah, pretty scary.

How would it actually work? Wired explains:

Say you’re a farmer who just heard that next month there’s going to be a plague of locusts that love munching the particular variety of maize you’re growing in your field. You’ve already planted your maize, so there’s no time to grab some locust-resistant seeds and plant a new crop. Instead, you buy a whole load of aphids that have been infected with a genetically-modified virus programmed to insert a locust-resistance gene into maize plants. When those aphids start chomping on your maize plants, they’ll transmit that genetically-modified virus to the crop. Once inside, the virus will release its gene-editing molecules and, if everything goes to plan, turn your normal maize plant into a locust-resistant maize plant.

The problem, critics are saying, is it’s much easier to use this technology as a weapon to kill crops than it is as a tool to save them.

Guy Reeves, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, argues that you could use this same technology to infect the crops of your enemy.

You could engineer the insects to make the crop’s seeds sterile. Your enemy would have no idea this had happened until next year when they went to plant those seeds and no crop sprouted.

And again, people have pointed out the risk of contamination. It’s not like you can shepherd a swarm of insects. They will go wherever they feel like.

Darpa has mandated that its trials take place in greenhouses, so the insects can’t escape. But insects are notoriously good at escaping. And greenhouses are pretty flimsy structures.

So, is it as terrifying as that headline made it sound? Or is it simply a good use of biotechnology, which will save many crops, money and lives?

I guess we’ll find out soon, because, as Wired points out, trials are already underway:

The research program, which is already underway in four different trials in the US, is now attracting consternation from biologists and ethicists who argue that this new technology poses a biosafety risk and could easily be turned into a new kind of biological weapon.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Technology

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