Military Studying Plant Manipualtion for Future Defense Strategies

WASHINGTON – You can’t grow a palm tree in the Arctic. Or can you?

Researchers at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense, are attempting to manipulate how organisms interact with their environment. If successful, their Ecological Niche Preference Engineering Program could lead to palm trees in the Arctic and penguins in the desert.

DARPA said the program focuses on protecting America’s food supply in case of natural disasters and or attacks by other countries. One of its newest programs, DARPA began funding research into Ecological Niche Preference Engineering at the start of 2017.

Dr. Todd Kuiken, senior research scholar with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, has been closely following many of DARPA’s synthetic biology programs. He views the Ecological Niche Preference Engineering Program as the next step in synthetic biology.

“From my understanding, in an agricultural sense, if that’s what the goal is, they’re trying to engineer specific environmental conditions or biological conditions that a particular organism has to have in order to grow in a particular place,” explained Kuiken. “It’s an organism’s preference of where they want to live or how they want to live.”

Kuiken was formerly principal investigator on the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project, where he designed research and governance strategies for biosafety, biosecurity and environmental risks related to synthetic biology and genetic engineering. He is also a member of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Ad-Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology.

One example of research in this field that is funded by DARPA is that of Andrew Nuss at the University of Nevada, Reno. Nuss is developing strategies to change mosquitos’ host-seeking methods: In other words, making mosquitos no longer attracted to humans. For the military, this could mean providing soldiers with protection from mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria in conflict areas.

However, Kuiken says the research into Ecological Niche Preference Engineering isn’t solely for military use.

“Other people are looking at it to deal with coral bleaching; particularly ones that are susceptible to ocean temperature rise, engineering coral species to live in warmer waters,” said Kuiken. “It could potentially be a powerful tool to combat climate change.”

Michael Smanski of the University of Minnesota is one of the researchers working on the project. His lab is focusing on engineering reproductive barriers to accelerate niche differentiation.

“Niche differentiation refers to a process by which two species adapt to live in different unique microenvironments/ecological roles,” said Smanski. “For the DARPA-funded project, we will engineer reproductive barriers in a model organism (nematodes) and perform a laboratory evolution experiment that will favor the evolution of niche-differentiation (for example evolving strains of nematodes that prefer different food sources).”

DARPA said that the control and altering of niche preference of organisms will lead to reduced economic, health and resource burdens.

“I would classify our DARPA funded research as basic research, not applied research. However, it could lead to some interesting applications, for example developing non-GMO (genetically modified) organisms that could be released to combat agricultural pests or clean up the environment,” said Smanski.

However, as with most of DARPA’s sci-fi sounding experiments, some scientists are skeptical about the military’s plan to use this new synthetic biology and genetic engineering for only agricultural purposes.

“They were interested in some of these agricultural applications from a potential defensive standpoint,” said Kuiken. “I obviously have some reservations about the military in this particular space.”