Friend not foe: Insects and geckos helping defend the US

By Gabrielle Stannus

Those of us lucky enough to witness Rose Herceg’s dynamic presentation at the Growing Edge conference in February certainly had our eyes opened. Herceg had been fortunate enough to visit the headquarters of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Virginia, U.S.A. She returned to Australia with some interesting observations of how DARPA’s military grade technology, including its unique Insect Allies research, may help both growers and retailers in this country in the not too distant future.

DARPA is working on many innovative research projects that may provide direct or indirect benefits to the horticultural industry, including the following:

The Z-Man "Geckskin"

Inspired by geckos, the Z-Man "Geckskin" program demonstrated that a 16-square-inch sheet of Geckskin adhering to a vertical glass wall could support a static load of up to 660 pounds. Herceg suggests this type of technology may provide a safer way for arborists to climb trees to tend to them, e.g. to collect seed for growers, or even to conduct maintenance on greenhouse structures.

Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT)

The Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT) automated translation and linguistic analysis program is aimed at providing English speakers with access to non-English speaking populations. Dr Joseph Olive from DARPA says that BOLT was originally developed for Iraqi Arabic, although the system has recently been configured for African French-English dialogue. This technology could break down language barriers growers face when importing and exporting nursery products.

Engineering Living Material (ELM)

The Engineering Living Material (ELM) program is developing new building materials with the attributes of living systems that are capable of growing rapidly in situ in hostile environments. Imagine a regenerating concrete that could be used to quickly repair nursery buildings after extreme weather events, e.g. after a cyclone in North Queensland.

Gait Biometric Technology (GBT)

Gait Biometric Technology (GBT) analyses a person’s gait, then uses algorithms to compute a profile of that person predicting their behaviour on a range of topics from politics to purchasing. Herceg says that GBT could potentially allow you to know how your customer thinks as they walk into your nursery, even down to their plant and flower preferences.

Insect Allies (IA)

Herceg suggested that DARPA’s Insect Allies program is the area of research perhaps most interesting to the horticultural industry. This DARPA program seeks to provide a response to unexpected or rapidly emerging threats to food crops, using targeted gene therapy to protect mature plants within a single growing season.

DARPA has provided funding to four institutions to conduct this research over four years. Research commenced in 2017, focussing on maize, tomato and common bean plants. “If we demonstrate proof of principal in these annual systems (which can be tested more rapidly than perennials), then this platform should translate to perennial crops as well” says Dr Blake Bextine, DARPA’s Insect Allies Program Manager. Dr Bextine believes that the Insect Allies approach would fit very well as a response tool to recover trees or as a method of delivering a prophylactic treatment for trees with a high likelihood of infection.

Some of the Insect Allies researchers are employing insects that are traditionally seen as pests on their target crops. For example, Pennsylvania State University is using whiteflies to deliver deconstructed viruses with stress-mitigating factors into mature tomato plants, with a timing and specificity that improves the plants’ natural stress response to drought and disease. Dr Bextine says researchers are working to ensure that the vectors do not become problems themselves. All work is carried out in secure, biocontainment facilities in acordance with federal guidelines.

Researchers have also been asked to develop what Dr Bextine calls “novel conditional lethal systems”, i.e. “off switches”, in the program insects. These systems would trigger insect mortality. “An example would be a light-triggered conditional lethal where loss of light triggers a molecular cascade that results in mortality. So, insects that require light for survival would be released in the morning and would expire when the sun goes down” says Dr Bextine.

The future?

All Insect Allies research teams are currently on track to demonstrate that a single virus transmitted by a single insect can impart a single characteristic to an individual plant. When this research is complete, there is no guarantee however that the outcomes will be commercialised. Dr Bextine says that DARPA-funded researchers maintain the rights to their intellectual property and may choose to pursue further development and commercialization of their technologies if they are successful.

To fully realise the benefits of these technologies, Herceg recommends that industry develop a position on their potential legal and ethical issues now. Industry can then work with government to ensure any issues with these and other break-through technologies are addressed properly before products are launched in the marketplace.

Useful Links

Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT):
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA):
DARPA Facebook:
Engineering Living Material (ELM):
Insect Allies:
Insect Allies – More information on the research institutions involved and their research:
Microscale Plasma Devices (MPD):
USDA-APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services:
USDA-APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine program:
Z-Man "Geckskin":