The Assistant (Ch. 24) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 024

Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 24. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 6, 2018.

First off, I have a fiction update. I’m excited to announce that my first novel, Bionic Bug, is now available as a paper back on Amazon. To find it, type in bionic bug fiction. I’ll also include the link the show notes.

The release is especially timely given a headline in the New York Times last week. My first tech headline for this week:

  • Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security” by Emily Baumgaertner in the New York Times on October 4.
  • This article is about DARPA’s Insect Allies Program, which has three technical areas—viral manipulation, insect vector optimization, and selective gene therapy in mature plants. DARPA wants to improve the resilience of crops against drought, floods and even foreign attacks by genetically modifying them to be more resilient with gene therapy. And they want to do this through a virus that will be carried by insects. Typically, classical plant breeding would be used to improve crops, but this takes a long time. Moreover, scientists are unable to address emerging threats quick enough. Using an army of insects, quick and comprehensive modifications to crops to ensure food security.
  • The project kicked off in 2016 seeking proposals by scientists and researchers. Universities and companies have already received the awards to begin this work. For example, scientists at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Davis, and Iowa State Universityreceived a four-year $10.3 million award in 2017.
  • Why is this project making the news now? A group of scientists recently published a warning in Science magazine about the dangers of controlling a swarm of insects and the equally troubling prospect of inadvertently creating biological weapons. In fact, they’re alleging that doing so might be breaching the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty prohibiting the development and use of dangerous pathogens and toxins as weapons.
  • DARPA published its rebuttal last week, defending its project and disagreeing with the claims made by these scientists. Notably, DARPA is not funding open release projects at this time. All work under the project will be conducted inside.
  • If you’ve been listening to my podcast from the beginning, you know that I’ve envisioned the scenario the scientists warn about. In my novel, Bionic Bug, a rogue scientist genetically modifies a swarm of beetles to carry a disease—a particularly frightening form of a biological weapon, invoking images of the plagues from the Bible. Aside from DARPA’s good intentions and my concerns about food security in the U.S., I’m inclined to agree with the dangers of controlling such a swarm. If for some reason, we are not able to control what happens with this flying gene therapy mechanism, we could undermine the goal of food security in the first place.

My second headline is “A Controversial Virus Study Reveals a Critical Flaw in How Science Is Done” by Ed Yong in the Atlantic on October 4.

  • This article continues the debate around the horsepox experiment carried out in Canada a few years ago, the results of which were published last January. As you may recall, scientists were able to reconstruct the horsepox virus, a cousin of the smallpox virus, from genomic data. They ordered sequences of the virus’s genome from companies and stitched them together. Once they had the full genome, they inserted it into a cell and booted up the organism, recreating the virus from scratch. They were able to do this in under 6 months for about $100K. This experiment has led to concerns about bad actors doing the same thing with the now eradicated smallpox virus.
  • If you’re interested in the debate surrounding research that can be used for good or bad, I encourage you to read this piece.

Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara, Rob, and Vik visited Beautific Creations to investigate the source of the stolen botulinum toxin that killed Sully. And they got much more than they bargained for, including the capture of Sully and Fiddler’s assistant, Ashton Grant. Let’s find out what happens next.

The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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