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Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

DARPA launches new initiative to protect food supply and crops from agricultural threats

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently launched a new initiative aimed at combating potential agricultural threats using targeting gene therapy to protect mature plants in the growing season.

The initiative, called Insect Allies, is seeking to leverage insect vectors and the plant viruses they transmit to deliver modified genes to plants.

“Insects eat plants and insects transmit the majority of plant viruses,” Blake Bextine, Insect Allies program manager for DARPA, said. “DARPA plans to harness the power of this natural system by engineering genes inside plant viruses that can be transmitted by insects to confer protective traits to the target plants they feed upon.”

DARPA is focusing on three distinct areas to protect mature plants against natural or intentional agricultural disruption without the need for extensive infrastructure, including trait design, insect vector optimization and selective gene therapy.

One contemporary technique used, called selective breeding of disease resistance, usually takes 5 to 7 years of work to identify specific protective genes and an additional 10 years to propagate the desired traits throughout plant populations. DARPA is aiming to reduce the time this process takes to within a single season.

“Genetic modification of plants has historically been done only to plant embryos inside of laboratories using tissue cultures,” Bextine said. “Transforming mature plants en masse would be an enormous achievement and pave the way for future breakthroughs in agriculture.”