What was the DARPA funded Insect Allies Program? What was Penn State’s Team solution?

In the realm of modern agriculture, the line between friend and foe can be surprisingly thin. The “Insect Allies” program, spearheaded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is blurring these lines further by transforming insects from crop menaces into carriers of salvation. With pioneering contributions from teams like those at Penn State and the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), this initiative could be likened to a heist plot straight out of a thriller movie. However, instead of nefarious motives, these ‘heists’ aim to protect and enhance our food supplies. This blog post delves into the ingenious strategies employed by these researchers to fortify crops against the impending threats of nature and human interference, using insects as their tiny, but mighty, allies.

The Foundations and Scope of the Insect Allies Program

The Insect Allies program, an initiative funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), officially commenced its mission in 2016 with the objective of securing the United States’ agricultural food supply against a plethora of emerging threats including droughts. With a substantial allocation of $7-$10 million per team, the program represents a strategic response to potential natural and engineered threats to crop systems, including pathogens, drought, flooding, frost, and especially threats posed by both state and non-state actors.

The Penn State Heist: Whiteflies as the Unlikely Safe-Crackers

At the heart of the Insect Allies program, led by Penn State under the guidance of Dr. Wayne Curtis, lies a caper that turns the agricultural world on its head. Traditionally cast as the villains in the story of agriculture, whiteflies have been reimagined by the team as skilled operatives working for the greater good.

In this daring plot, these tiny insects are not just random burglars but are more akin to specialized safe-crackers. Their mission? To infiltrate mature tomato plants, not to steal, but to deliver life-saving genetic messages. These messages are encoded within specially designed viruses, much like the detailed plans a master thief might use to bypass a bank’s security system.

Here’s how the Penn State solution cleverly unfolds:

  1. The Setup: Just as a heist might begin with gathering intelligence, the project starts in the greenhouse, where researchers meticulously prepare the whiteflies and the viral ‘tools’ they will carry. These tools are tailored to each specific mission, designed to unlock the plant’s natural defenses against environmental stressors like drought or disease.
  2. The Break-In: The whiteflies, now acting as the ‘safe-crackers,’ are introduced to the mature tomato plants. Unlike typical robbers who might smash and grab, these whiteflies make their move with precision, using their natural feeding process to deliver the genetic tools directly into the plant.
  3. The Payload Delivery: As the whiteflies feed on the plants, the viruses are transferred into the plant, where it spreads. This is the critical moment of the heist, where the genetic messages are delivered. These messages instruct the plants to bolster their defenses, enhancing their resilience against impending threats.
  4. The Escape: After delivering their cargo, the whiteflies can be removed, leaving behind a plant that is now better equipped to handle stress. This is akin to the robbers making their getaway, except in this scenario, the heist leaves something far more valuable than it takes. Whiteflies have a conditional lethal, where the insect will die a few days after being used and would prevent whiteflies from traveling to other agricultural areas.
  5. The Outcome: The end result of this ingenious operation is a crop that stands a better chance against the adversities it will face in the field. The success of this mission could mean the difference between a thriving crop yield and a disastrous season.

Through this novel approach, the Penn State team for the Insect Allies program has effectively turned a potential pest into a powerful ally in the quest to secure global food supplies. The whiteflies, once mere nuisances, are now key players in a strategic operation to enhance plant health and productivity, proving that sometimes, the best way to protect a valuable asset is with the help of an unlikely specialist.

The Role of Gemini Plant Viruses in Transient Gene Editing

In the intricate world of agricultural genetic enhancements, Gemini plant viruses play a pivotal role akin to expert lockpickers who can open a safe without leaving a trace. These viruses, integral to projects like the Insect Allies program, are harnessed for their ability to introduce beneficial genetic changes to plants—changes that are crucial for overcoming immediate threats but are not passed down to future generations.

How Gemini Viruses Operate:

Gemini plant viruses are unique in their operation, acting as the perfect tools for transient gene editing. Much like a skilled thief might disable a security system temporarily to accomplish a heist, these viruses deliver genetic modifications to the host plant that do not integrate permanently into the plant’s own DNA. This means that while they can initiate powerful changes to enhance the plant’s resilience to stressors like pests, diseases, or harsh weather conditions, these changes remain confined to the current generation of plants.

The Advantage of Temporality:

The transient nature of the genetic changes introduced by Gemini viruses is a double-edged sword, but with distinct advantages:

  • Targeted Response: It allows for rapid and targeted modifications that address immediate threats without the long-term implications of permanent genetic alterations. This is particularly valuable in adapting to rapidly evolving challenges such as emerging diseases or sudden environmental changes.
  • Environmental and Regulatory Compliance: By ensuring that the modifications do not pass on to the next generation of plants, it alleviates some of the major concerns related to GMO crops, such as unintended cross-breeding or gene escape into wild populations.

Strategic Deployment:

The use of Gemini plant viruses in agricultural biotechnology is similar to using a master key to unlock potential in plants when and where it is most needed, without changing the locks for future users. This approach allows researchers and farmers to deploy gene-editing tools in a controlled, reversible manner, ensuring that the enhancements can be updated or withdrawn in subsequent plant generations as conditions change or new information becomes available.

This strategic deployment underscores a thoughtful balance between leveraging cutting-edge science to secure our food supply and maintaining ecological integrity. The role of Gemini plant viruses in this delicate balance showcases how modern biotechnology can navigate complex challenges, providing solutions that are as ingenious as they are cautious.

The BTI Heist: Unlocking Maize’s Potential with Insect-Delivered Genetic Safecracks

The Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), alongside collaborators from the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Davis, and Iowa State University, orchestrated an audacious project titled “Viruses and Insects as Plant Enhancement Resources” (VIPER). Funded by a generous $10.3 million award from DARPA’s “Insect Allies” program, the VIPER project is the quintessential strategic operation aimed at bolstering maize, a cornerstone of global agriculture.

Imagine the maize fields as vast vaults filled not with cash but with potential yield that could feed millions. Yet, these vaults are under constant threat from natural forces like drought and pests, akin to the security threats to a bank. Traditional methods like breeding are slow and reactive, much like waiting for the bank robbers to strike before upgrading the security system. Chemical pesticides, on the other hand, are the equivalent of costly and environmentally damaging armed guards.

Enter the BTI team, who, like a group of sophisticated and ethically minded bank robbers, have devised a plan not to steal but to enhance. Their strategy involves engineering not just the maize but the insects and the viruses they carry—turning potential pests into carriers of beneficial genetic modifications. These engineered insects are like elite operatives, tasked with delivering critical genetic payloads directly into the maize plants.

The Operation:

  1. Engineering the Tools: Just as a heist might require specialized gadgets, the BTI team developed unique viruses that can carry beneficial genes. These viruses are then loaded into aphids and leafhoppers, turning these insects into living syringes that can inject the genetic material directly where it’s needed.
  2. The Delivery: In a maneuver reminiscent of a timed vault entry, these insects could be released into maize fields where they deposit the viruses into the plants. This method ensures that the genes are delivered swiftly and efficiently, bypassing the slower traditional breeding methods.
  3. Activating the Defenses: Once inside the plants, the genetic material works like a safe combination being dialed in. It activates traits that make the maize more resilient to drought, pests, and diseases—essentially fortifying the vaults against external threats.
  4. Safety Measures: Much like responsible robbers would ensure no harm comes during a heist, the BTI team conducts all experiments within the secure confines of greenhouses and growth chambers. No genetically modified insects or plants are released into the environment without thorough testing and containment strategies to prevent any potential spread to non-target areas.

The Impact:

The VIPER project’s approach could revolutionize how we enhance crop resilience, offering a rapid deployment toolkit to counter sporadic and emerging threats. By transforming pests into helpers, the BTI team not only protects but enhances the maize vaults, ensuring that they can withstand the assaults of nature and human-induced stresses.

In the grand scheme of things, the BTI’s operation might seem like something out of a futuristic heist movie, where the protagonists use their skills for a greater good. Here, the prize is a more secure and robust food supply, safeguarded by the very organisms that could have been its adversaries. The Boyce Thompson Institute’s work is a vivid example of how, sometimes, the best way to protect a valuable asset is by turning potential threats into invaluable allies.


The audacious strategies employed by DARPA’s “Insect Allies” program, particularly through the efforts of teams at Penn State and BTI, represent a significant shift in how we approach agricultural challenges. By retooling insects and viruses, traditionally seen as adversaries to agriculture, into tools for crop resilience, these teams are setting a new standard in the field. The work being done is not just a series of scientific experiments; it’s a proactive approach to safeguard the global food supply in the face of climate change, pests, and other environmental stressors. As we look towards a future where food security will increasingly become a global focus, the innovative methods developed by these researchers could well be the key to unlocking crop potential and ensuring stability in food production worldwide.