Continuing a project on bacteria DNA which started in October 2013, a team of Harvard and Yale scientists has reached a new milestone: creating a self-destructing mechanism inside the bacteria genome in order to hinder their escape in the wild.
This was possible by modifying the bacteria’s genetic code and infiltrating a dependency on a manufactured nutrient (a synthesized amino acid) that is only found in lab conditions. Therefore, the bacteria’s surviving skills in the wild is nipped in the bud. George Church, professor of genetics, called the new self-destruct method a way of putting the genetically modified organisms on a leash.
There are tremendous new efforts into creating modified organisms with new capabilities, but there’s a long way between the present progress and the manufacturing of something on a larger scale – such as bacteria with the ability of cleaning up a hazardous waste spill. The next step will be finding a way of controlling the organisms internally, so they can be stopped from getting out of control when released in a natural environment.
Without this internal “leash”, GMO bacteria in the wild scenarios are something to be feared: it has the ability of completely overwhelming an ecosystem. What’s even more unsettling is the possibility of transferring these new powerful genes to other organisms.
Farren Isaacs, assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale, is confident that new solutions will be found to various challenges in the biotech century we are living in. Biotechnology is an ever-expanding field, ready to provide unknown results.
The prestigious research teams are completely sure that, as they are now, the 1 trillion bacteria they have created have no mechanism of surviving in the wild or surpassing their leash. It’s not only the new modified genes which make it possible for the scientists to control the bacteria, it’s also the fact that their whole genome undertakes a major modification, therefore keeping them under total supervision.
Karmella Haynes, an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, said that the current difficulty is the sheer amount of time needed for determining if every GMO individually is completely safe for people or the environment. Rushing into the next phase of the project would be catastrophic, if a release of the bacteria would prove dangerous and there would be nothing to do to fix it.
The next step of the project will be taking the bacteria from the lab conditions and moved into controlled environment simulating natural situations and supervising their behavior. The main concern is figuring out if the GMO can morph into something else which might prove dangerous for the environment or to your body (in the case of probiotics). Therefore, longer experiments are needed, where bacteria would be under microscope for multiple generations.
Image Source: New York Times