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GMO 'Kill Switch' Makes Them Safer for Nature

Jan 22, 2015 12:08 PM EST

With growing fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) an unavoidable and understandable consequence of 'playing God,' researchers have been in pursuit of new ways to eliminate some of the real threats modified products could pose to the natural world. Now, two separate teams of researchers have designed unique "kill switch" systems that would automatically eliminated escapee experimental GMOs.

That's at least according to two studies recently published in the journal Nature, which detail how both teams found unique ways to make a modified strain of E. coli dependant on artificial nutrients. The result is a GMO that cannot leave the lab, lest it quickly die after losing access to what was keeping it alive.

As described in the first paper, "Containment of Genetically Modified Organisms by Synthetic Protein Design," this isn't exactly a new idea. Researchers working with pathogenic bacteria before have forced nutrient dependency on the organisms in order to ensure that an accidental outbreak was near-impossible - especially with countless other safety measures in place. However, it was observed that these GMOs could then simply mutate to live without synthetic nutrients, after rejecting the part of their DNA that codes for the reliance.

So how did these new teams overcome this problem? In the aforementioned study, led by Harvard molecular geneticist George Church, researchers simply inserted the genetic information that coded for dependence throughout E. coli's genome - 49 times, in fact. This ensured that only a perfect mutation, one that rejected all 49 of those changes, would result in a loss of dependency. And the chances of that, they report, are slim-to-none.

Yale molecular biologist Farren Isaac led his team in taking a different approach to achieve a similar result.

"Our strains, to the extent that we can test them, won't escape," Dan Mandell, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School, told Nature magazine after the studies were published.

"This is really the culmination of a decade of work," Church said. He added that with their success, scientists can be more bold about groundbreaking experimentation with far less worry that their creations could escape and wreak havoc on the natural world. (Scroll to read on...)

That, of course, is a boon for scientists and everyday citizens alike. After all, there is no telling what kind of damage experimental GMOs might inflict. Back in April 2014, for instance, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute successfully created a semi-synthetic organism that boasted three base pairs in its DNA rather than the natural two (A-T and C-G).

The unnatural addition of the man-made bases d5SICS and dNaM could, in principle, "encode new proteins made from new, unnatural amino acids - which would give us greater power than ever to tailor protein therapeutics and diagnostics and laboratory reagents to have desired functions," lead researcher Floyd Romesberg explained in  a statement.

In other words, by creating unnatural DNA material, scientists could create a wider variety of proteins, expanding possibilities for medicinal and even nonmaterial applications.

However, if such an unnatural creation escaped and interacted with microbes in nature, it could also create a whole world of unpredictable trouble. Thankfully, researchers were able to design a "switch" that would ensure the unnatural base pair only showed up when they wanted it to. Still, the idea of such a threat remained.

Then, last September, researchers reported achieving a "first step" towards improving plant photosynthesis. This, it was argued, could change the world, boosting agricultural production and carbon sinks in one shot. However, the consequences of "super plants" invading the natural world was also apparent, where improved photosynthesis could allow modified plants to easily edge out natural competition - radically threatening the world's biodiversity.

Thus, making escape near-impossible for experimental GMOs is a huge step in ensuring these doomsday scenarios never happen, no matter how unlikely they were in the first place.

Still, you likely won't be seeing the Harvard and Yale "kill switch" design in the GMOs most of us are familiar with - that is, the eight staple food crops, like corn and soy.

"I can see no need for this in crop plants that are anyway risk-assessed and approved for field cultivation, and use in food and feed," GMO plant biologist Huw Jones of Rothamsted Research, who was not associated with the work, told BBC News.

He added that implementing this system into the tried-and-true would simply hike costs and set production back in a world that needs to be fed. However, keeping new GMO crops contained until they are fully tested... that could never be a bad idea.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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