Insect Allies Project

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The Insect Allies Project is DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program seeking countermeasures against threats to the U.S. crop system and food supply. This program was launched by the Department of Defense in 2016 with the main goal of mitigating the threat of flooding, drought, and pathogens to U.S. crops. The project uses a three-part approach consisting of highly technical scientific manipulation. DARPA's hope is that this will allow a positive alternative to negative crop control, such as pesticides and slash-and-burn techniques. The overall hope of the program is to crush future threats to U.S. national security that arise when the crop structure is damaged. The basic backbone of Insect Allies is the very cycle between insects and plants. Highly skilled and respected researchers from several U.S. institutions make up the team. While Insect Allies seeks to positively benefit society, many ethical issues arise such as the creation of the next biological weapon.



DARPA is using an insect delivery system to modify the genes of plants to accomplish this goal. This delivery system uses a tripartite system of Viral Manipulation, Insect Vector Optimization, and Selective Gene Therapy.[1]In order for the project to be effective, all three parts of this system must work in harmony. An error in one part will effectively cause errors to the other two parts, and ultimately cause a failure.

Tripartire System

In order for this idea to be successful, all three parts of the research must be successfully addressed and developed. This is tricky, as each part is heavily reliant on each other, and each part has several wildcards. Although they are related in the sense of the project, each area of research can be researched and developed independently and separately.

Viral Manipulation

The first part of the project involves genetically engineering viruses to improve crop growth.[2] This involves an immense amount of testing and scientific effort. Even if an appropriate virus is successfully engineered, there is no guarantee the other two parts of the three-part system will also work. Researchers from several universities are working hard on this part, as any, even small, mistake could greatly damage crops.

Insect Vector Optimization

The delivery system of these new engineered viruses is solely dependent on insects.[3] Scientists control the viruses they are engineering, but they do not control the courier insects. There is a high risk that the insect delivery system will not work as intended. That is, the insects could not spread out the viruses as intended or not spread the virus at all. This is arguably the biggest wildcard of the project, as there is little that scientists can do to perfect the courier system.

Selective Gene Therapy

Another wild card in this project is the adaptation of the infected plants. There is no way to be certain the infected plants will act as they are supposed. Some immune systems of plants will fight off the virus intended to help them, counteracting the effects of the program.

The Natural Cycle of Insects and Plants

Through the natural cycle of insects, they eat plants and transmit viruses to them[4]. DARPA is hoping to make these viruses positive and beneficial in the future. Insect Allies is using this natural delivery system to groom a more stable supply of crops across the country. Naturally, insects transmit viruses to plants during the feeding process.

The Team

DARPA recruited from public and private universities and institutes to create a world-class team of researchers and developers. Some notable schools and institutions that are represented on the team include Penn State University, Ohio State University, The University of Texas, The Boyce Thompson Institute, The University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and the University of California. One of the head researches is Dr. Blake Bextine, a member of DARPA since 2016, who has a Ph.D. in Entomology from Oklahoma State University.

Ethical Issues

The Positives

A number of ethical issues arise from the Insect Allies Project. There are multiple positive benefits, as well. If done right, this program will effectively mitigate the threats to our national crop system, the backbone of our food and agriculture. Both natural and engineered threats by state and non-state actors will be expunged, such as global warming, pesticides, and quarantine. If successful, America will avoid national security threats due to a lack of crops and will secure a major victory. Despite all of these benefits, there are still major risks involved as ethical issues arise.

The Negatives


Some scientists fear that DARPA is manufacturing the next biological weapon[5] . If Insect Allies can be used to help crops, then it can also be used to hurt crops, experts fear. That is, this program can be used to weaken and destroy an enemy's crop and agricultural system in times of war and conflict. Spokespeople from DARPA and Insect Allies have acknowledged this fear and emphasized that this project was only added and will only be used for positive benefits to crops. The project is currently only in the hands of DARPA, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army. It is safe to say no foreign, non-state actors could get their hands on this technology as it solely belongs to the United States. However, there is still public panic, who fear this program can be used for the worst. In spite of this panic, the program has too many benefits to not be welcomed by the public. As of now, the talk of Insect Allies as the next stage of biological weapons is just speculation as fear raises among the paranoid sect of scientists.


Despite the ethical issues and concerns from scientists, DARPA is currently developing and testing the technology to make Insect Allies a reality. DARPA publicly emphasizes their commitment to safe and healthy research, conducted inside laboratories which do not threaten the safety and security of the public. Aware of the concerns by the public, DARPA is working with strict precautions. As DARPA continues to test their manufactured insect delivery system, U.S. crop systems get stronger and more resilient to natural and unnatural threats. At the same time, a potential biological weapon grows stronger.


  1. Bexton, B. Insect Allies, 2018.
  2. Guo et al. Viral Manipulation of host mRNA Decay, 2018.
  3. Bexton, B. Insect Allies, 2018.
  4. Rotenberg et al. Disruption of Insects Transmission of Plant Viruses, 2016.
  5. Haskins, C. Scientists Fear DARPA, 2018.