Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli, grown in culture and adhered to a cover slip. Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have amazing potential for improving lives, from providing nutrients to undernourished populations to cleaning up pollutants to synthesizing drugs on large scales. Yet escape of GMOs into the environment could upset nature’s balance, just as invasive species can cause extinctions of native species. Recently, researchers have effectively encoded safety locks into the genomes of these organisms to prevent their proliferation into natural environments.

Independently designed by George Church of Harvard and Farren Isaacs of Yale, they started with genetically modified E. coli made in Professor Church’s group that incorporated an unnatural amino acid, the building block of protein. Both groups then mutated proteins vital to the bacteria so that they would need the particular unnatural amino acid in order to function. These new strains of E. coli require researchers supplying this synthetic nutrient in order to survive. While this research has importantly raised the barrier of GMOs surviving in nature, more testing is needed to understand whether such GMOs could eventually circumvent the imposed alterations. Furthermore, this method needs to be applied to more complicated organisms with larger genomes. While the work is daunting, ensuring environmental safety and public trust are essential to realize the full potential of GMOs.

Edited by SITN Waves Editor Ankita Shastri and written by Elizabeth Brown. Many thanks to Elizabeth Brown for her contribution, expertise and insight on the article. Elizabeth is a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

News story
Original scientific article- Church, George M., et al., “Biocontainment of genetically modified organisms by synthetic protein design,” Nature, 2015.

Read other SITN articles on GMOs-
Genetically modified organisms
The Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology: “Syn” or Salvation?

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